The other day I was listening to a running podcast with a guest who is a wellness influencer. He had been on this specific podcast before but came back to tell a story he hadn’t done so publicly — his journey to sobriety. It began by noticing that most of the people he admired had a freedom he wanted but wasn’t sure how to get. Then, he started to recognize how intertwined alcohol was in his life—after runs, with his kids, on airplanes—and he needed it that way. However, he limited his use, thinking that if he didn’t drink on specific days, he didn’t have a problem. He didn’t think he could give up drinking, but something pushed him to sobriety. When he started down that path, he knew this was what he was looking for all along.
As I listened, I recognized some of these patterns and behaviors in myself, but not necessarily with alcohol. The guest said he got sober because he wanted to be more present in his life. I want that, too, and there are a lot of obstacles for me, but my biggest is social media.
I joined Facebook nearly 15 years ago, in September of 2005. I remember it being such a big deal at the time because the site was only open to specific universities. I didn’t have a MySpace, but the exclusivity of Facebook drew me in. When the social media platform finally recognized my university email, I immediately made a profile.
Then came Twitter and eventually Instagram, LinkedIn, and Snapchat and others that didn’t last the test of time.
For the next decade and a half, I’ve broadcasted my life over apps. Anytime there was news to share — from new jobs to race finishes to published articles to my wedding — it had to go on social media. Pictures from vacations, random Friday night outs, and scene scapes that matched my mod were posted to say, “I am doing better thank you think I am.” Social media also was a simple way to keep in touch with people without actually talking to them; we might not have spoken in two years but I know about your new house and the name of your baby.
It started as a simple way to share pieces of my life, but as the platforms developed and became more sophisticated, social media consumed my life. And not just mine. When I joined Facebook back in 2005, 5 percent of Americans used social media. Now it’s 70 percent.
My use of social media veered into excessive early on, especially with the evolution of mobile technology. Unhealthy habits started to become normal, such as logging on to Facebook at work, checking Twitter while driving 75 mph down the Interstate, and diverting my attention away from the people in front of me to what was happening on social. I knew I was probably spending too much time online, but what was it hurting? Plus, when I moved away from South Dakota, social media was really the only way to keep in touch with what was going on back home. I needed it.
The first time I deactivated my Facebook account came after a heartbreak. I was obsessively checking the profile of someone I needed to let go of, and I didn’t have the discipline to do it with a connected profile. So, I deleted the whole account. It was incredible. Not only could I finally distance myself from that person, but I felt lighter, freer away without a Facebook presence. I stayed off for four or five months, but eventually came back. My decision to return was due to guilt over losing touch with friends in Lesotho as Facebook was really only my channel of communication with them. Even when I was off of Facebook, I was still on Instagram and Twitter and not quite disconnected from social media.
In the last six years, I’ve taken breaks here and there, sometimes deactivating my account, other times just not logging in for weeks at a time. But, I always come back, and when I do, my use quickly ramps back up to overindulgence.
I use social media with rules to avoid facing the fact that I have an unhealthy relationship with it. I do not have the apps on my phone, even though I can easily log into my accounts from the web browser. I try to take the weekends off, but often break that rule. I tell myself I won’t log on today but cave. I only ever intend to be on there a second, but I lose 10, 20,30 minutes scrolling.
These days, almost always, when I go on a social media binge, I usually end up feeling terrible. Whether it’s the onslaught of bad news and harmful opinions or the comparison trap, I no longer get joy from social media, but yet it’s still a crux that I do not know how to let go of. I keep going back, more frequently and spending more time on the apps, because it takes longer to get my fix.
The second that I feel bored, I reach for my phone. When I am sad or anxious, I scroll. I visit the profiles of people I haven’t talked to years, to educate myself on what they are doing and how they feel about the matters of the day. I think about accomplishing something big just so I can post about it online, going so far as to decipher the exact writing I will use. When I do post something, I check it several times to see how many likes or comments I have, and I take note of who has interacted with this post. Or more specifically, who has not. I scan accounts of people I’ve never met, wondering how I can get what they have. My feed is there to remind of me where I am falling short. A post about someone’s new job, house, or baby can send me to depressive spiral for hours. The sadder I am about not having what I want in my life, the more I go to social media to punish myself.
In my training as a counselor, I’ve learned that mental health issues are not consider diagnosable disorders unless they are causing specific harm to your life. An addiction is only an addiction when it’s hurting you and the people you love. Anxiety is only a disease when it’s preventing you from living the life you want. This means that there are many people who can operate normally and seem fine with similar symptoms but aren’t not diagnosable because it isn’t causing negatively impacting their life.
Take my husband for example. He spends a large chunk of time online, passing through Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, likely passing more time on social than me. The biggest difference, though, is that he doesn’t leave these sites feeling worse about himself. He doesn’t use them to numb or avoid. He has banal interactions from social media, often just gaining information. Me, though, a visit to social media can ruin my mood for hours.
That’s how I know I have an unhealthy relationship with social media.
So, should I quit? I’ve done it before, why not again? I am afraid of deactivating my accounts for lots of reasons. There are so many groups and events that only take place on Facebook, so deleting my account means I would remove myself from those communities. Instagram is by far the most triggering for me, and I do try to limit my time there, but it’s also a really good way to build followings and connect with people who have similar interests. I really want to find a way to combine my mental health education and writing, and I would need a platform like Instagram to reach people. Plus, I am afraid I will miss out on events and happenings in my friends and family’s life. Once, during one of my Facebook breaks, my colleague invited everyone in the office to his Halloween party, except me. I joked about not getting invited, and he said, “Well, you aren’t on Facebook so I couldn’t invite you.” As if we have always thrown parties this way. If I deactivate my account, what else will I miss?
And what about other sites, like Strava and Snapchat, which are used for running and watching videos of my nieces and nephews? Would I have to go cold turkey and cut out everything to really get the benefits? (Side note: I deleted my Twitter account a year and half ago. I still go to the site from time to time to see why my Red Line Train is delayed 30 minutes and why I am hearing helicopters outside my apartment, but for the most part, I do not miss that dumpster fire.) Or, should I just enforce stricter rules? Would I even adhere to them?
This week I start training for my internship, and it would be a good time to reduce my online presence. Not just for the sake of being more present, but because it’s inevitable that my clients will Google me (all of my accounts with my name on them are set to private for this reason). Also, it’s not a bad time to leave Facebook on the precipice of an election, not to mention all the spam friend requests I’ve been getting (Hi, Russia!).
My relationship with social media is indeed not healthy, and it’s something I want to change, but I guess I am afraid. I know the right answer is to delete everything, even if for a while, but I am scared of what I will miss and who I will be without it. Right now, I am not ready to pull the plug, but at someone point, I am going to have to see that who I will be without it is probably not as bad as how I feel with it.