By: Ciara Reid, SFU Student
Ending a dysfunctional relationship is difficult, but things are usually better once you’re out. This was my experience in beginning the process of deleting my social media after two years of increasingly unhealthy use.
Before the pandemic, my relationship to Instagram was as healthy as my relationship could be to a platform that causes damage to people’s mental and emotional well-being. Sure, I was constantly comparing myself and my life to those of the people I followed, but at least my time spent on the app was limited and my life outside the app was satisfying. And before COVID-19 , I wouldn’t have even considered downloading TikTok because I knew just how addictive it would be.
With lockdown, things changed. In the absence of other things to do, I spent hours on Instagram. I downloaded TikTok. Before I knew it, I was spending massive chunks of my day on social media. And I was feeling way worse. I was addicted.
My addiction persisted beyond lockdown. In every free moment, I had my phone in-hand. I felt like I was looking for something: a laugh, the dopamine hit of a new “like” or a feeling of connection. But once my phone was down, I felt empty and frustrated — like I had achieved nothing. I had so many interests I never had time to explore, and I felt very alone.
A 2017 survey showed social media is associated with worsened anxiety, depression, loneliness, and body image. While TikTok has yet to receive the same damning reviews, I can say from experience it is addictive.
In a 2021 interview, Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke noted most people are at risk for social media addiction: because of its ease of access and the dopamine rushes it sends through our brains. What’s problematic, says Lembke, is that the more we are exposed to these dopamine rushes, the higher our “baseline” becomes — we feel the need to consume more. According to Lembke, after using social media we are “plunged into a dopamine-deficit” which — in addition to the constant comparison and FOMO we experience when using social media — leaves us feeling awful.
None of us are truly unaware of how social media affects us. The evidence of its detrimental potential is everywhere. However, cutting ties with our social media accounts is not as easy as we might hope. Many platforms are designed to be as addictive as possible, and quitting them has been likened to dropping a cigarette habit.
I chose to delete my Instagram and TikTok because I no longer wanted to be on platforms that encouraged me to compare myself to others; I no longer wanted to feel the guilt of never exploring my interests because all my time belonged to social media.
We all owe it to ourselves to take a step back and assess our relationship to these apps. Irish podcaster, Blindboy Boatclub, puts it perfectly: substance use (and here I would include social media) is not inherently problematic or damaging: what can be problematic is our personal relationship to substances. As Blindboy argues, emotional awareness of how and why we use something, and the impact of its use on our lives, is essential.
Lembke suggests taking prolonged breaks from social media to combat its addictiveness. And my process started with intermittent week-long breaks. This process made it easier to move toward outright deletion, fueled by my refreshed understanding of what’s best for my mental health. To facilitate the distancing process, apps like Forest and Digital Detox offer motivations to spend time away from social media.
To be honest, I am worried about loneliness. I know I am losing some connection, and I have yet to see how this will feel in the long term. But damn, it feels good to have my time back.