Social media has changed the way of the world. Today, I will share my story of how it has impacted my life and how I finally took back control from its grasp. If you’re ready to give up social media for good, check out my ultimate guide on how to give it up right here.
Life before social media
To understand where it all started we have to go back to the beginning, in a time before social media.
I grew up when computers were in their infancy and the term “social media” had yet to be coined. As a child, I spent more time playing outside with my friends or losing myself in the fantasy of books, then watching TV or thinking about what a computer might be.
Photo sharing was regulated to massive albums at grandma’s house during the holidays and if you wanted to talk on the phone, well, the old rotary phone could be found waiting in the corner.
I lived in the moment and enjoyed what I had. I certainly wasn’t thinking about the number of likes my photos had, or whether or not I was invited to every single party that was happening that weekend (only to bail because I didn’t want to go anyway #JOMO).
In fact, in kindergarten, I invited the whole class to my birthday party by handing out handwritten invitations to each kid at the end of the school day. There were no Evites, no emails, no Facebook meeting groups, only paper and pens to get the job done. Things were simpler.
My earliest exposure to social media
For us 80s kids, (you know who you are), computers were pushed on us at a young age. It started subtlety with an hour here or an hour there, playing games and just learning how to use them while at school. Oregon trail anyone? 🙂 [By the way, you could still play that here]. It wasn’t until several years later that we started doing “real school work” on the computers and we certainly couldn’t take them home with us.
Back then, it was rare the average family had a computer in their home. Mostly it was limited to schools, or workplaces and some lucky families that were early adopters, but that would change quickly. By the end of the 80s, Statista reported that only 15% of homes had a personal computer. By the turn of the century, that number rose to half of all households. Today, most of us are carrying a “computer” in the palm of our hands and you may be using one to read this right now.
I will never forget the day we got our first computer. It was Christmas in the early 90s and some very large boxes had been wrapped and left near the tree. My Mom couldn’t contain her excitement and I was clueless as to what in the world was in those boxes. When it was finally unwrapped, what a gorgeous, glorious machine it was. Picture this: a 64-bit processor, floppy disk drive, “lightning-fast” boot-up and dial-up internet capabilities.
The first thing I learned to do, was dial-up my best friend through the computer. All we could do was type simple sentences back and forth, but it was exhilarating. Not long after the foray into direct chatting, I was introduced into the world of the “Bulletin Board System” (BBS).
Many argue the first real glimpse of social media was born with bulletin boards. While the earliest version appeared in 1978, they started to take off as personal computers showed up in more households and dial-up become commonplace. In the height of their day, in the mid-90s, over 17 million users were logging on every day.
Since dial-up was a still thing, if I wanted to be “online,” no one could use the phone. This mostly regulated time on the computer to well after anyone was likely to call and frequently got me in trouble for staying up too late. To make it worse, the BBS would get so overloaded with people, you could get a busy signal for hours while trying to connect.
I still remember sitting in the dark, staring at the screen and typing in text commands. The details of the game have largely blurred over time, lost in a cobweb of long-forgotten memories but I mostly remember having to get up by 5 AM when the game reset to race down into the dungeon and get the only special key released for that day before anyone else could get it.
It was the first real taste of how computers and social media would ultimately impact my life. As it wasn’t just a game you played on your own. You could chat with people online, make alliances, and share in the spoils of the game. It was a place to escape, make friends and feel like you had accomplished something. But did I? No one interacted in real life. No prizes were given for completing a level or taking out another player. I had nothing to show for the hours I played other than the fleeting memories I still hold today all these years later.
And thus began a new era, one where social media became an ever-increasing part of my life.
My life during social media
Although many consider the bulletin boards to be one of the earliest forms of social media, I mark the beginning of my journey when instant messaging and the internet took off. I consider this the start of where the real problem began.
The Instant Messaging Era
Long after the bulletin boards faded in popularity, and the one I enjoyed finally shut down, a new breed of technology transformed the next wave of communication. Instant messaging. I was late to the party on this one and didn’t start using AOL for almost 2 years after it had launched. When I finally found it, I was hooked.
Who didn’t want to IM their friends in the middle of the night when they should be sleeping or at least getting their schoolwork done. It became the perfect alternative to calling on the phone.
What followed was a storm of competitors, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, and the list went on. It wasn’t enough just to choose one, as friends tended to favor one over the other. So what did I do? I signed up for all of them.
And yet, at this point in my life, I still didn’t feel all consumed by the giant cloud that would inevitably follow me. I don’t think anyone knew what was going to hit us as technology kept advancing.
Myspace is founded
In 2003, we got Myspace.
Remember Tom? He was everyone’s first friend and his smiling face stared back at us every time we logged in. Unless of course you unfriended him. These days you can find him showing off his mad photography skills on Instagram after selling Myspace for $580 MIL. It seems that even Tom can’t escape the clutches of Instagram, but I digress.
I originally stayed away from Myspace as I didn’t understand what it was. Fast forward a couple of years when it became popular and I willingly signed up. It certainly started innocent enough and although there wasn’t a huge adoption in my social circle, it was enough for me to put effort into creating a profile and customizing it with every widget out there.
While we were all happily embedding song players and glitter emojis into our profiles, Myspace introduced the “top eight.” This was a ranking system to display to the world who your favorite friends were. Experiencing the highs when you became your BFFs # one spot was amazing and it was equally crushing to be slotted number 2, or worse having to decide who you were going to put on your list. Friendships were ended over this.
Near the end of my use of Myspace, I had resorted to playing time-consuming games like Mobsters and Sorority Life. Little did I know, these games would pale in comparison to future digital drugs such as Candy Crush and Farmville.
Friendly fact, Myspace is still alive and well today (I was surprised too).
Facebook takes over the market
With Myspace losing popularity, I finally decided to hop on the Facebook bandwagon. In the beginning, it was fun. There were no likes, no worrying about ranking your friends and a care-free attitude to posting updates. As more and more users started to sign up, “friends” from high-school, colleagues, family, distant relatives, marketers and bots would all end up wanting to “connect”. Competitions to see who could get the most friends starting happening. The constant barrage of game apps asking you to send your friend some corn in Farmville took over everyone’s feeds. The like button showed up. The fake news showed up.
Over the next ten plus years, Facebook would find a way to encroach upon as many facets of people’s lives as they could and it became inescapable. They made it easy to log in to news sites and leave comments without creating another user name. “Sign in here” with your Facebook account was like a beacon of convenience. It became the way we chatted with friends, shared photos with loved ones, bragged about the fabulous trips we took and organized meetups.
And for all the good that Facebook brought to people’s lives (including mine), it also began to have a dark side. I began hating some of the content that “friends” on my feed were posting. Political statements, what they had for breakfast that morning and the overly dramatic cry-out for attention posts regarding ordinary life started to take a toll.
Another issue was that I found myself wanting to compete with people online that I rarely hung out with in real life. I became annoyed when I felt obligated that I needed to hit the like button on a photo I hated. I would tell myself I was just supporting my friends but were they my friends?
Eventually, the methods of normal, healthy communication started to erode. For instance, I looked forward to an in-person discussion with my friends about the amazing vacation I had just gotten back from. The response I would always get “oh ya, I saw that on Facebook, let me tell you about what happened to me last night.”
As if Facebook wasn’t enough of a time suck and source of serious anxiety for me, I latched on to an even more detrimental site to my well being, Instagram.
Instagram moves in for the kill
I love and loathe Instagram.
The beautiful hand-picked images tailored in my feed and served up on a platter by the all-knowing algorithm based on my interests. The endless scrolling, designed so I never had to hit the next button. The education, the memes, the exotic destinations, the shopping and of course the group chats. What’s not to love? 🙂
What about the constant flow of ads or seeing stories of your “friends” that were out having fun and didn’t invite you to come along? How about seeing the same picture you posted on your friend’s feed and they have 30 more likes than you do? What about feeling obligated to follow your friend’s account they created for their not so-cute dog or hearing one of your followers is ticked off because you didn’t “like” the comment they made on your photo. 🙁
“Do it for the gram”
I was constantly seeking new photos to share on Instagram stories. I was looking for “cool” places to go or unique photos to share with my meager following of what I would later find out to be “fake friends.” How many pictures does it take to get a good shot of fireworks in the dark? Or a flower you’ve passed by? Or a different angle of the same building on the same path you take to work every day? Better photos get more likes. Better photos get you more attention when you see your followers in real life. Better photos take more time to shoot and last about two seconds in the endless stream of constant scrolling until you need another to take its place. It’s a vicious cycle.
Instagram consumed all my time
At the height of my Instagram use (thanks Apple screen time for this helpful stat!), I found out I was spending up to 4 hours a day mindlessly scrolling in the app. That’s the equivalent of a part-time job every week or 56 full days per year. I started to wonder, what else could I be doing with my time?
Instagram destroyed my ability to concentrate
When you’re using Instagram as much as I did, you’re mindlessly opening the app every second that something gets hard, or you’re bored, or you’re waiting for someone. That 30-second elevator ride? Instagram. Waiting in line at the supermarket? Instagram. Trying to finish an important task at work. You guessed it, Instagram.
As much as I like to believe I can effectively multi-task, it turns out something like only 1% of the population can pull it off. The rest of us are “switch-tasking.” The more overwhelmed I became with work or other obligations, the quicker I gave up and would turn to Instagram. Just a quick peek I would tell myself and somehow it’s two in the morning and I’m watching dogs eating spaghetti. Just as you can train your brain to partake in deep, meaningful thought, you can just as easily train it to crave short bursts of meaningless information. Let’s not sugarcoat it – we are talking about addiction. Yes, it is in the same camp as caffeine or gambling or whatever destructive vices you can think of. Addiction.
Instagram was hurting my relationships
One unfortunate side-effect of social media is its ability to hijack your brain. I already knew it was hurting my concentration and ability to complete tasks. It also started bleeding into my relationships with my hubby, my family, and my colleagues. With Instagram, if I didn’t like what I was looking at, I would just keep scrolling and switch topics. It turns out, people don’t appreciate it when you aren’t genuinely listening to what they’re telling you. I also learned when your phone is on the table at dinner or a work event, even if it’s upside down, you are subtly telling that person you don’t care about them. Your phone is more important, or rather whatever addictive app that is on your phone is more important than them.
After the umpteenth time of having to ask the person to repeat themselves, because I wasn’t listening, I finally realized I had to put my phone away. Not only was it rude for me to be looking at my phone (or think about my phone) while talking to others, I was often not paying attention to what they were saying.
Instagram made me feel lost
It’s no secret the most followed accounts on Instagram feature fantasy type visions of white sand beaches, perfectly groomed smiling happy people or seemingly impossible amazing feats of utter awesomeness. It was easy to feel like my accomplishments weren’t worthy and my life wasn’t good enough. Why didn’t I order that giant mud pie for dessert at dinner? I deserve to have that amazing Prada bag and jet-set off to Paris for an extended weekend.
Up to 100 images may have been taken to get that perfect shot or the people in the photo may hate their life or fight with their family non-stop. Those aspects of reality do not come through in many photos and I was sucked into the dream. Envy, jealousy, worthlessness, and anger were just some of the emotions I would feel while mindlessly scrolling to keep feeding the addiction. Does it make me proud to admit that? No. Does it make me human? Certainly.
My first social media detox
I tried to quit social media before by going on a 30-day blackout mission. I deactivated all of my accounts, announced to everyone I came across in real life what I was doing and waited for the accolades and freedom that it would bring. The reactions from others during that initial trial were lackluster. A few people said, “good for you, I could never do that.” Others proudly announced they never used social media in the first place and couldn’t understand why I was so proud of myself for the detox.
It didn’t matter, as I was determined to escape the hold the platforms had on my life. I wanted my concentration back and I wanted the anxiety of trying to impress people online to be a thing of the past.
The 30-days went by pretty quick. I would tell interested people what I was doing and it happened during an incredibly busy period at work, which helped pass the time. Of course I still took massive amounts of photos in case I needed to post them after the 30-days were up. I also continued to read my news apps from top to bottom. After all, it wasn’t a digital detox, it was a social media detox.
At the end of the 30-days, I reactivated all of my accounts and went back to how life was before. Nothing changed.
When I finally gave up social media for good
Six months after my first attempt at ditching social media, I finally snapped.
Stressed at work, I was on a massive road trip across the country meeting with clients and balancing too many projects from my normal routine. Before sunset, driving across the Nevada dessert, I stopped briefly to take in the Valley of the Fire.
Red swirling rocks in jagged formations sprang out of the earth awash in color as the sun set over the earth. For a brief moment, I felt calm, relaxed and in awe of the beauty around me. Not to let my followers down, I snapped a few photos alongside a class full of aspiring professional photographers who waited in the dessert for the perfect lighting.
That night, I posted my favorite snap, completed my mindless scrolling through irritating endless streams of smiling happy people and ads before going to bed.
I started off my morning with my normal routine of logging into Instagram before dragging myself out of bed. My beautiful emotional photo from the night before? No one liked it. I was crushed. The whole room was spinning as I was picturing everyone laughing at my poor attempt of photography and yet I could still see all the smiling happy people in their perfectly groomed photos staring back at me. (I would later find out the Instagram algorithm was playing games when they pushed “likes” to their users. They would push them at random times or in groups in order to simulate the thrill and loss of gambling. This was all designed to keep their users coming back).
My disappointment turned to anger when I realized I was allowing an app to ruin the experience I had enjoyed the day before. Who cares if no ones liked my photo? My happiness is not and should not be tied to an app. I was finally ready to move on.
I deactivated Facebook, Instagram, deleted all my news apps from my phone, cleaned up other apps that were as equally distracting, unsubscribed from as many newsletter and junk mail sites as I could and did a massive clean-up of my LinkedIn connections.
My life after social media
The first day
Immediately after I deleted everything, I felt liberated. That lasted for about an hour. The rest of the day I must have scrolled to where Instagram was on my phone fifty times, only to realize it was gone. I started to panic and wondered if this was the right move. Was I ready for this? What am I going to miss? How am I going to know when there is an event? How will I see pictures of my Mom’s dog? How will I stalk people?
I went to bed that night and didn’t have Instagram to help me go to sleep. I laid awake thinking about it.
The first week
Over the next week, things didn’t get any better. I was going through symptoms of withdrawal. I would open my phone and mindlessly navigate to where the app should be, only to find it was gone. After some reflection, I would come to my senses, reaffirm my decision and resolve and reluctantly go back to what I was doing.
I still couldn’t concentrate and no one seemed to notice or care I was no longer on social media. Despite that realization, I still found myself looking for things to take pictures of, only to realize I had nowhere to share them.
A few months after terminating social media
The positive benefits of quitting social media
Over the next few months, I began to notice some great changes.
My concentration improved
My concentration slowly came back and my brain felt quiet. The constant hum and buzzing of information overload were finally dissipating. The anxiety I felt in the constant search for content to post online gradually subsided. I found the need to take fewer pictures. I was more “present” in conversations and my listening skills greatly improved. Another benefit was that I stopped walking on the street like a phone zombie, nearly running into people or cars because I wasn’t paying attention.
I was finally accomplishing some of my goals.
With my newfound time and concentration, I was able to put real energy into completing some of the things I had on my to-do list for years. In the first two months, I read three books, re-organized my files at work, and cleared the path for finally starting my website. It’s been a great feeling to not have the distractions from keeping me from pursuing my goals.
I felt better about myself
Without the constant barrage of smiley perfect people and everyone looking their best, I began to feel better about myself. I no longer worried I wasn’t doing something “grammable” on the weekends. I also didn’t feel bad about not being invited to events when I didn’t know they were happening. I could focus on the things that made me happy and not some unrealistic idea of what I thought others would be impressed by.
The negatives of quitting social media
I wish I could say it was all good, but it wasn’t.
Very few people noticed or cared I had quit
I only had one person ask me why I wasn’t on social media anymore. They only noticed because I stopped posting the workout of the day in my story feed, which you could only get if you showed up for class.
I no longer got invited to events.
All those group chats and Facebook invite pages? It turns out when you’re no longer on social media, you’re very easily forgotten. Those “friends” you thought you had, they aren’t exactly friends if you never hang out. It’s easy to think you’re connecting with someone when you know what they had for breakfast and what cool thing they decided to share that day. You feel like you know them and understand what they’re going through. They may even invite you to go hang out at a party once in a while. The harsh reality is, those are still just acquaintances. Not friends. And when you eliminate the thing that tied you together, that relationship is gone. There was no more commiserating with people through the group chat about whatever crazy thing happened and thus no more invites to that once in a blue moon social event.
People think you unfriended them
Some people will inevitably think you don’t like them anymore because you unfriended them. They won’t stop to ask if you deleted social media for good. Instead, they will automatically assume you just don’t want to be their friend anymore. Unfortunately, this happens mostly when the person wasn’t your friend, they were just an acquaintance. I had one person tell me their like count went down on a single picture, and they combed through their account to try and find out who unfriended them.
After a while, I started to tell people I liked that I wasn’t online anymore so they knew I wasn’t singling them out.
Was it worth it?
It was 100% worth it and I would do it again. I would do things a little bit differently if I could go back in time.
Before going cold turkey and pulling the plug, I would make sure I understood why I was doing it and what I hoped to gain. I would also try doing a few things with my accounts before I went nuclear.
First, I would go through and clean up my friend’s lists, unsubscribe to newsletters to simplify my feeds and mute people I didn’t want to interact with anymore (if I couldn’t quite delete them outright). I would also delete the apps from my phone and only access them at home on my computer. If that didn’t work, I would move on to the nuclear option.
Before hitting the account termination button, I would reach out to people I knew would be impacted by me leaving the platform. I would make sure I told them why I was doing it and get their phone number and email address. I would also make an effort to set up some time with them to meet in real life.
Next, I would download all my pictures from the platform and make sure they were safely backed up somewhere. No sense in losing all those memories!
Finally, I would run through scenarios where I knew things were going to be difficult, and have a game plan for how I was going to emotionally handle the transition.
Read my complete how-to guide on giving up social media here.
Will I ever go back?
Ultimately, I think there are some great benefits to social media, provided you use it carefully. I miss not being able to see photos of people I truly care about in real life. I also miss the ease at which you can communicate with people without needing to exchange phone numbers.
If I choose to go back to social media, I will do it in a very thoughtful way. Here are a few things I would do if I went back:
- Be very selective in the people I connected to. That would mean no acquaintances, no one I don’t talk to in real life and no one that used the platform solely as a means of showing off or as a nonstop attention grab.
- I would only use the platforms on my computer while I was home and ready to intentionally sit down and look.
- I would make an effort to speak in person, via email or on the phone to all of my contacts at least once per quarter.
- I would set a limit for myself on how often I would post photos and what I would share.
It may seem like I’m being harsh with all the rules I would create for myself, but I clearly cannot handle unabridged access to these products. That’s the fight you pick with addiction and just walking away is a win for me. The benefits I’ve gotten from breaking free of the clutches of these programs have far outweighed the cost.