Stepping Backwards: Diary of an Ex-Social Media User

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 14 minutes

It’s been over a year now since I removed myself from social media. I kept LinkedIn for professional networking, and Messenger to stay in touch with friends. I said goodbye to endlessly scrolling through Instagram, posting on Facebook about who knows what, or sending useless videos and images via Snapchat. After this long, however, I’m left questioning whether I’ve conquered an addiction, or simply developed a new one.

As is the case with much of my generation, I was an addict, a slave to my phone or my laptop and the promise of social interaction and fulfilment that was offered within. As of 2021, 3.78 billion users exist across the Internet, a number expected to reach 4.41 billion within the next four years. The surging usage and popularity of forerunning sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Myspace has resulted in an abundance of social media platforms. Statista ranks Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger as the

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 14 minutes

It’s been over a year now since I removed myself from social media. I kept LinkedIn for professional networking, and Messenger to stay in touch with friends. I said goodbye to endlessly scrolling through Instagram, posting on Facebook about who knows what, or sending useless videos and images via Snapchat. After this long, however, I’m left questioning whether I’ve conquered an addiction, or simply developed a new one.

As is the case with much of my generation, I was an addict, a slave to my phone or my laptop and the promise of social interaction and fulfilment that was offered within. As of 2021, 3.78 billion users exist across the Internet, a number expected to reach 4.41 billion within the next four years. The surging usage and popularity of forerunning sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Myspace has resulted in an abundance of social media platforms. Statista ranks Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger as the most prevalent of these platforms, each possessing at least one third of all social media users on the planet. This brings us to one of the most interesting aspects of social media: experts now recognise that with 92% of teens and young adults using it every day, 71% are using more than one social media site. Just like I was, most young people are hooked on multiple sites or apps.

This can be an overwhelming process. Constantly keeping tabs on multiple news feeds, messaging on several platforms at a time, receiving notifications all at once from all your apps; this simply means that most of your time can be spent simply trying to keep up. Mix in the latest trends and fads – some of which have become dangerous or even fatal in certain cases – and you’ll find there is immense pressure on young people to remain connected. The term “FOMO”, or “Fear Of Missing Out”, has been coined to describe this pressure. FOMO is now being discussed by psychologists as a predictor of social media addiction. Personally, this was a massive issue for me. Having friends spread out around the country, I found myself constantly checking in to all my social platforms, worrying that if I spent too much time away that those connections would fade.

Addiction to social media is an intensely underestimated factor in the current state of mental health across the globe. One of the biggest possible pain points for a parent of a child or teen addicted to social media is simply questioning what social media does for them. The answer is a complicated one and helps to explain why addiction can set in so easily. Social media often offers a place for self-expression in a niche community that supports you, and in some cases has been shown to promote happiness, connectedness, and intimacy with your peers. Sites like Tumblr or Pinterest have built communities that rally passionately behind users suffering from mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders. Studies have revealed plenty of positive reasons why someone might use social media, including a link to increased social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health.

However, as was my experience, the moment an addiction forms is when social media tends to become a different experience. Internet addiction or social media addiction has become increasingly prevalent, with some studies revealing rates of addiction amongst university students ranging from 9.7% up to as much as 41%. Looking back on the feeling of being addicted to social media is a funny thing. Much like an addict of alcohol or illicit substances, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I miss it in some way. There is a very real rush to pursuing likes, comments, shares, reposts; each one provides a burst of dopamine and satisfaction that keeps you going until the next one. Minutes of scrolling turns into hours of time wasted. As a busy university student, I often found myself under pressure from multiple assignments at once, work life, and personal life and I would so easily turn to social media to relieve stress. Data suggests it is at this point that the negative affects of social media begin to appear as an emotional connection to social media forms. In other words, once you start using social media to relieve stress, loneliness, anxiety or depression, social media can become dangerous. I can speak confidently in saying that a great deal of social media users would likely seek at least one of those – if only on occasion.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash

Personally, I was fond of social platforms where I could find niche communities with similar interests to me. While that’s possible on almost everything nowadays, there are some that do it better than others. Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram are all formed by massive communities interwoven across different groups, blogs, hashtags, or topics. It’s possible to find a group of like-minded people – and to become part of a digital community with thousands of people across the world is a very special thing. There are the same kinds of in-jokes, stories, and connections shared with people online that you’d find in real-life social circles. This makes it all too easy to feel like you’re doing the right thing for yourself. You log on to each community every day and see people thriving and enjoying themselves and you feel right at home. And yet, you put down your phone or turn off your computer and you’re suddenly alone. The realisation sets in that if you just stay locked into those communities, you don’t ever have to feel alone. That is one massive moment, and for many people seals a deal with their social platform of choice for weeks, months, or years to come.

There is an immense pressure to stay online. People will often report that they are aware of the effects that social media use has on their lives, stating that staying on social media is better than being out of the loop with their peers. Being a young student studying computer science, I was very much aware of the dangers and negatives of social media. I was very much aware that social media companies design their platforms around taking advantage of the natural social instincts of humans, employing tactics like those found in gambling, or including infinite scrolling to ensure you struggle to break out of the ‘content loop’. I think everyone who uses social media frequently is conscious of this. It’s simply become a fact of using the Internet in 2021 – every action you take is likely being used to benefit someone, some company, somewhere around the world.

The Cambridge Analytica case was the first real moment when people around the world were suddenly introduced to the power of our social profiles. By willingly handing over so much data to ‘big data’ companies, who can use it for whatever they like, you are allowing a conclusive profile to be built with hundreds of pieces of information dictating with shocking levels of accuracy your interests, hobbies, work experience, qualifications, age bracket, physical address. The fact that Cambridge Analytica was allegedly employed to use this data to better understand a political candidate’s audience of voters should not have been surprising to us.

Even so, the entire world was taken aback, realising that the innocent posts made on Facebook many years ago about the most useless of things were still being utilised to build very real information about you, years on. This was one of the primary reasons I decided to delete as many social media apps from my phone and laptop as I could. I initially set myself a challenge, a small number of weeks to simply test whether I was capable of being without it. Once I found that I could, and my social life improved, along with my mental health and general quality of life, I have gone without it since. Although I do question whether I’ve truly made the transition, as I’m still hooked on YouTube, which is really a social media site working under the guise of seeming distant from other platforms, focusing more on user expression and longer format content. However, YouTube is the second most visited website daily, is owned by Google, and in recent years has developed a reputation for being increasingly critical and oppressive of users’ rights to creative expression and free speech as more videos than ever are being culled from the platform. Have I really conquered such a massive addiction in my life, or simply just replaced it with a new one?

My message to you, dear reader, is simply to try out taking a break from social media. Most smartphones nowadays have built in Digital Wellbeing or parental controls that allow you to set timers on applications on your device – once the timer runs out, you can no longer use the application that day. Give yourself the challenge of going without certain apps, or all of them if you’re daring enough, and see how long you can last or what kinds of improvements it brings to your life. Even if you choose to continue using them for the myriad of benefits or the fun, simple entertainment that they can provide, you can at least be aware that you rely on these apps much more than you realise. I haven’t written this article to brag or to argue a point; truly, if I can encourage just one person to change the way they look at social media, I’ll be happy. I’m under the impression that social media has already become a crucial aspect of modern society and will continue to be so for many years to come. Give yourself the chance, though, to remember what life was like without it, and you might be surprised with the results.

 

 

Sources: 1. Number of social network users worldwide from 2017 to 2025. 2. Most popular social networks worldwide as of July 2021, ranked by number of active users Statista 3. Teen, social media and technology overview 2015, pewinternet.org 4. TikTok suicide prank: Viral trend may actually be responsible for a teen’s death. Distractify 5.Extraversion, neuroticism, attachment style and fear of missing out as predictors of social media use and addiction. Personality and Individual Differences 6. Social media and loneliness: Why an Instagram picture may be worth more than a thousand Twitter words. Computers in Human Behavior 7. Social media use among adolescents coping with mental health. Contemporary School Psychology 8. Association of social media use with social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health: Disentangling routine use from emotional connection to use. Health Education & Behavior 9. Study of depression, anxiety, and social media addiction among undergraduate students. Journal of Management Information and Decision Sciences 10. “It Makes Me Feel Even Worse”: Empowering First-Year Women to Reconsider Social Media’s Impact on Mental Health. About Campus 11. Ethics of the attention economy: The problem of social media addiction. Business Ethics Quarterly

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