The awkwardness of being off social media
Social media is far from perfect. So is the process of ignoring it.
In early July, around the same time I took a break from writing this newsletter, I decided to delete Instagram and Twitter from my phone.
Every time I opened a social media app—which was often—I’d inevitably experience a sense of emotional whiplash. I’d feel jealous one moment, after flipping through photos of an acquaintance’s dreamy vacation. Then I’d feel pressure to do something in response to the social justice infographic that flashed on my screen. I’d feel ugly and less-than after watching an influencer’s choreographed Reel, then funny and clever after discovering the perfect meme to share in a group chat. And, before I knew it, I’d be feeling sad, as I wrote “I’m so sorry for your loss,” on another friend’s post about their dog that died.
I could never predict what kind of posts I’d run into when I opened Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Increasingly, though, I knew that there was a good chance that scrolling through it all would ultimately make me feel empty.
Checking social media also began to seem like a chore. Not only did I feel obligated to send the appropriate emojis and responses to friends’ posts, but I also felt pressure to share my own updates—Close Friend Only photos of my daughter, wider-circle updates about life with Billy or missing Jamie, a few professional posts thrown in for good measure. Before publishing an update, I’d scan for typos, spend countless minutes picking the right gifs and font colors, and make sure I hadn’t written anything that could be taken the wrong way. The lines between my personal and professional social media accounts had blurred long ago, and I treated it all like An Important Job.
In short, I was burnt out. I was exhausted from trying to take in all of the information flying at me and from the expectations of responding to said information. I was tired of the pull that social media had over me. I was ready to make a change.
My newsletter break lasted six weeks. I returned feeling rejuvenated, filled with ideas for new essays and a desire to get back to this community. But my social media break is still on.
The desire to return to social media hasn’t happened yet. It’s been nearly four months since I’ve scrolled through Instagram or Twitter. (I mostly stay off of Facebook too, though as I confessed a while back to paying newsletter subscribers, my local Buy Nothing group keeps me on the app, for better or worse.) Although I miss some of the platforms’ features, I don’t miss the cacophony.
To be fair, I’m hardly unplugged from the internet. For starters, I have this newsletter—a place that allows me to share what I’m thinking and feeling with a sizable audience and receive the validation I may otherwise have gotten from social media. I also have my partner Billy, who is very much still on the platforms I deleted. He keeps me updated on the latest memes and trends, and makes sure I know about important things in friends’ lives that I may have otherwise missed.
Even with these crutches, getting off of social media hasn’t been a painless process. I wish I could say that ignoring Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook has been an easy, clear-cut choice that I haven’t second-guessed. But that’s not the case. While it’s true that the mental health benefits of being off of social media are worth it, I’ve discovered some significant trade-offs.
For instance, I have undoubtedly missed important moments. I’m sure I’ve forgotten to wish friends a happy birthday, missed out on cute family photos, and neglected to acknowledge an important loss in someone’s life. I am finding out about job promotions and funny stories weeks after everyone else. With my more distant friends, I feel completely out of the loop. Without the tether of random Likes and comments, the distance between us grows even wider.
I also feel a disconnect between the joys I’m currently experiencing—our daughter’s first birthday, exciting-to-me house projects, a successful Halloween—and the fact that they’re not documented for posterity on my profile pages. Likewise, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m neglecting something. Abandoning the chore of being on social media feels like I suddenly stopped showing up to work. There’s a nagging sense that I’m not as good of a friend or as informed of a citizen without a constant feed of updates to guide me.
Still, these downsides haven’t been enough to get me back online.
I’ve tried to find some workaround solutions, but they feel especially awkward. In particular, I’ve re-downloaded Instagram in order to make a few quick posts, only to delete the app immediately afterwards. As someone who writes openly about the hard stuff in life, it feels important to share the highlights too—my posts are proof of life, proof that I’m ok, proof that time marches on.
But sharing these updates and quickly leaving seems rude. It’s like I’m entering a crowded room and shouting about my own life, but not sticking around to hear how everyone else is doing. It feels lopsided and bad. I’ve tried to stay online long enough to scroll through updates, but it’s overwhelming. Turns out it’s absurd to try and catch up on months of missed posts in a few controlled minutes.
The longer I try to find the right approach to social media, the more I realize what a beast it’s become—how impossible it is to abandon, no strings attached. Social media is massive and tangled up in countless parts of our lives. It’s how we connect with distant friends, where we share our myriad thoughts, how we keep up with the latest jokes and trends. For many of us, social media offers a path to work opportunities, traffic to content we produce, and ways to connect to professional contacts and sources. Social media is a vehicle for social justice movements, organizing protests, and sharing information—and, yes, misinformation—about candidates and voting and big political issues. It even proves invaluable after we die. Just a week ago, Jamie’s now-memorialized Facebook page provided a place for bereaved friends and family to share birthday wishes. Where would they have put those thoughts otherwise?
The trade-offs I’ve made by ignoring social media make me consider how much we’ve compromised as a society. Whereas we’ve gained more connection to friends and acquaintances, access to information and entertainment, and ways to share our thoughts and feelings, we’ve lost privacy, time, and—in some cases—a sense of well-being. The recent Facebook whistleblower accusations confirm this. We know the problems surrounding social media are tremendous, but our next steps are entirely unclear.
Personally, the best solution I’ve discovered so far is to reframe my expectations about what my social circle looks like. Instead of broadcasting to and keeping up with updates from hundreds of people all over, I’m instead focusing my efforts on a few dozen close friends. I’m sharing photos and stories with people dear to me through texts, phone calls, and visits, while asking about updates on their lives. This means I keep in touch with fewer people, but the connection feels more meaningful.
Best of all, I’m setting boundaries on my own terms, instead of letting myself mindlessly open the same apps, again and again, subjecting myself to yet another round of emotional whiplash.
I might decide to return to social media someday. I may not. No matter what I choose, I’ll never find the perfect solution. After all, social media is decidedly imperfect. It’s a cultural mainstay that we have very little control over. And we’re all navigating it the best we can.
p.s. For me, Instagram has been the hardest app to quit—and the one I think I’m missing out on the most. Which platform do you think you’d have the hardest time quitting, and why? I’d love to hear more. You can share by replying to this email, sending me a message, or leaving a comment below.
As always, reader replies will be part of Friday’s newsletter, which is for paying subscribers.
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I mean, if you’re going to be on social media, why not use it to make someone feel good? Thank you, Amy, for this generous shoutout. It’s much appreciated!
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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who has made many meaningful connections with friends and strangers alike via social media, but often gets overwhelmed by keeping up with so many people at once! Photos by Prateek Katyal and Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash.