It’s 2020, and a whole lot of people are realizing that social media can be more trouble than it’s worth. Algorithms frequently promote the most toxic and controversial posts, since those drive the most interaction and traffic, therefore increasing use and (obviously) ad revenue. These networks have been designed to be as addictive as slot machines. While using social media may not cost us any money, some of us are paying with our sanity.
Facebook lost 15 million users over the course of two years, and now Instagram’s growth is slowing. If you’re finding yourself among those questioning their relationship with social media and are considering a transition out, read this post.
I personally left social media in April of last year. My professional profiles still sit on each platform but serve as nothing more than syndication outlets for my blog posts. Nobody checks my DMs, follows, or comments.
I had no desire to participate online but felt like I had to for professional reasons, so I became a frequent contributor in professional networking groups and amassed several hundred “friends.” In the few years I was a Facebook user, I found no joy in it. At best, engaging felt frustrating and tedious. With so many people tagging and messaging me for help, I was overworked. Because so few of these people treated me like a human person (acting entitled to my time and attention and rarely thanking me for either), I felt bitter and unappreciated. In the months before I left, I’d spend hours feeling too anxious to check my notifications.
I left social media because my anxiety became unmanageable.
For me, anxiety presents as a largely physical sensation. I feel tense and edgy all day. My heart will race periodically for no discernible reason. Logically, I recognize that I’m not being chased by lions and that there’s no reason to feel like I’m clinging to the side of a cliff, but there’s nothing I can think that can stop it, so I ignore that panicky feeling the best I can and try to focus on anything else. I work hard to never be mentally unoccupied.
That was my normal—my baseline.
Panic attacks, however, involve every part of me. My thoughts spiral, amplifying the physical symptoms. Every time feels like I might be having an actual heart attack and every time, I worry I am. It takes anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to pull my shit together. The entire experience exhausts me.
I’ve always been leery of social media, so I didn’t share much of my personal life online. Rarely was I involved in anything contentious (aside from the odd debate over Russian manicures). I was extremely fortunate to have a good deal of “friends” who were genuine, actual friends. There was no serious reason for the intense dread I would feel when checking my notifications. There were no lions.
No stalkers. No trolls. No bullies.
So why the dread?
Criticism hurts, and our feeds are full of it.
Once you step outside the social media sphere, you’ll see it (and the whole internet) differently. Simply put: it’s (mostly) an absurd shitshow where the worst of humanity and the most narcissistic among us desperately seek attention and validation by any means necessary. It’s like the most abysmal reality show you’ve ever seen—one with endless episodes, where you know none of the stars and all they do is bicker over nonsense and sling uninformed insults at one another. (Your experience very well may differ from mine, but I was a member of far too many professional networking and parenting groups, so take that into account.)
It isn’t normal for people to be exposed to so many uninformed, unsolicited judgments—a constant barrage of opinions and presumptions. We would never encounter that much relentless interaction in real life outside of the internet, right?
Commentary that hasn’t been directed at us can still impact us.
Let’s say you’re a working mom. You drop the baby off at daycare and your oldest off at school and rush to the salon. You work for eight hours on your feet with your elbows in the air and a blow dryer in your hand. You get everyone home, get everyone fed, and finally lay your aching body down to relax and scroll your newsfeed.
Facebook knows you’re a working mom, so it has decided to show you a highly shared and commented blog post about working moms. There you see the top comment, left by a woman who considers daycare “child abuse” and working women to be “traitors to their families.” Sure, she’s a nutcase, but she isn’t alone. In the nested comments, you see people agreeing with her. “Women belong at home with their children,” they say. “America needs to give working mothers more support,” they argue.
Do they know you? No.
Are they talking to you? Nope.
Are they talking about you? Yes.
Now, maybe you’re feeling a little angry and unappreciated. Maybe you feel a tiny built guilty about working (like a lot of other working moms) and a little part of you worries they’re right. You’re reminded that you live in the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave, and that makes you feel bitter.
The algorithm saw you open that comment thread. It watched you scroll through, taking in all those opinions. Even though you’re not liking or commenting, it thinks you’re totally into this content, so it’s going to make sure you see even more of it—unless you put forth the effort to tell it to stop.
Algorithms continuously do this as they get to know you. You’re not just a mom, you’re a mom who has used the words “estranged from my mother” in a chat with a friend. Now you’re reading an article from a child psychologist who believes familial estrangement to be detrimental to child development—and hundreds of opinions on the topic.
Maybe you’re the kind of person who can laugh at negative comments, roll your eyes, brush them off, and move on with your day. I thought I could be that person, but the toxicity of strangers has a way of slowly poisoning you. If you’re getting ready to unfriend the internet, here’s what I wish someone would have told me.
Privacy has become a luxury.
Every day, you share parts of yourself on social media. Most of these parts can’t be erased—at least not easily. It remembers.
Not to make you paranoid, but you’re being watched. A lot. Every time you make a keystroke or click a link, your activity gets logged. Then, multiple corporate AI’s take that knowledge and curate content to keep you scrolling and buying, no matter the cost, even as research increasingly links social media with depression.
I, like most sane people, believe that most of the time (Cambridge Analytica-esque incidents excluded) those algorithms want nothing more sinister than to sell us whatever it thinks we’ll purchase, but if that doesn’t sound like dystopian nightmare fuel straight out of Black Mirror, I don’t know what does.
You can still document every moment of your life with pictures, videos, and text if that’s what you’re into. You don’t need Instagram for that—just a camera and a journal.
You don’t owe the world an explanation or an apology.
People will bitch at you for not telling them you were deleting your account, as if they were lawfully entitled to personal notice. They’ll be upset at you (likely because your departure from social media inconveniences them). Whatever your reason for leaving was—you don’t have to apologize or explain. In my experience, people wanted answers so they could convince me I should stay. Don’t waste your breath arguing with them or defending your decision.
It isn’t your job to be available to everyone.
The world isn’t entitled to your time and attention.
I don’t know when it began to feel necessary (critical even) to be on social media, but we functioned just fine before status updates and DMs. Your Aunt Linda can pry into your personal life the way civilized people creeped on each other pre-MySpace—by dropping by unexpectedly, asking a bunch of uncomfortable questions, and secretly rummaging through your medicine cabinet.
When you require direct, in-person interaction from people, your conversations will likely become more pleasant and substantial. Mine did. (Cyber-disinhibition is real.)
Your opinion on humanity in general will likely improve.
At times, when scrolling my newsfeed for the 500th time of the day or scanning comments on articles, I’d grow anxious reading cruel, rude, or outright ignorant statements. Sure, occasionally, I’d come across something intelligent and profound but only after sifting through a bunch of trash posts. It took leaving the internet for me to realize how deeply it tainted my opinion of humanity. Being exposed to so much negativity impaired my ability to form connections with people in real life.
At the most connected I had ever been online, I felt isolated, as if I had been born far too early…and possibly on the wrong planet.
By existing more in the real world, you’ll also realize that the vile people on the internet are but a small, loud minority within the world at large. You’ll also learn that people are rarely who they appear to be online—and that’s a really good thing because a lot of them certainly don’t come off looking like their best selves.
Don’t expect for leaving to feel “worth it” for at least a month.
At first, leaving hurt. I missed people. I felt like I had walked out of a crowded party, and while the silence and space were both a reprieve, I was alone. Like…really alone.
Weirdly, the feeling mimicked the one I get when I leave my kids with a babysitter. Here I am, sitting down to this great dinner out and genuinely enjoying existing somewhere in a public space without having to perform the constant “scanning headcount” every mother of multiple children has perfected. I can breathe and there’s silence…and yet, I’m anxious and wondering what the hell is going on at home.
I spent weeks picking this feeling apart, asking myself why I felt tethered to something that annoyed me and made me absolutely miserable. If you’ve already left and you’re feeling the same: don’t look for a logical answer. You won’t find one. I never did.
One day, that feeling just went away. I wondered about my “friends” less and less, and my perspective began to change.
After nearly a year of being social-free, I know I’ve gained more than I’ve lost. I like sharing thoughts and experiences in person, instead of blasting them out to 500 faceless “friends.” I prefer phone calls to DMs. I’m happy to have lost the ability to embarrass myself with a smattering of impassioned words shared with the world during a moment of idiocy.
The decision to leave wasn’t an easy one. I left a lot of long-distance friends whom I valued tremendously behind, hoping our relationship could exist outside of the convenience of social media. Most of them couldn’t, and that’s okay. Some of your “friends” will drop off too. Not because they don’t value you, but because life in general can be consuming, especially if you’re spending so much of it staring at a screen.
I don’t miss social media at all. I regret the few years I spent on it and the mental energy I wasted. When I think of the sunk opportunity cost for every minute spent scrolling, I feel sick.
Where would you be, personally and professionally, if you redirected the time you spend on social media towards your real-life goals instead?
For me, leaving was obviously worth it, but it took about a month to realize that, and even longer to fully appreciate the benefits of being somewhat off-the-grid. I’d love to say I have all this free time now, but I don’t. (I’m off social media—not off being an anxious, Type-A mess of a human being.) I still feel it necessary to stay busy, but I fill that time with more fulfilling activities that contribute to my sense of wellbeing, rather than subtract from it. My hope for you—the few of you who needed to hear this and have managed to read this far—is that you will too.