I took a break from Instagram, and here are some of the things I learnt so far.
May was a rough month for me. My job was supposedly going to get less busy after April, but it didn’t really. I also started my first module of the CPA program, which took up many of my evenings when I wasn’t working. Plus it was getting warmer outside so all my friends were starting to go out and have a good time again. I can honestly say I’ve never been more anxious in my entire life. I hate to even acknowledge that it was getting very tempting to just give up all my responsibilities and just live my life. However, I put myself in the position to take on all these things and wasn’t just going to let it all go.
I think one major part of why this month was particularly tough was because it got to the point of seeing everyone do things again. The FOMO from this made me heavily question what I was doing here grinding my face off from the early hours of the day, late into the night. I started to get increasingly caught up in what other people were doing, and I wanted to be doing those things too.
The dilemma is that both work and play have a role in my life, and it is up to me to decide how much time I spend doing either. The way to make that decision is a whole other conversation, but after a week of mostly filling my time with play, ultimately I decided that I wasn’t going to enjoy failing my CPA exam in 3 weeks, so I should probably make some sacrifices here.
On June 6, I decided I needed to get my life together. At deactivated my Instagram account and took the app off my phone. Tiktok also had to go. I kept apps that I didn’t use much (as a consumer) anyways — like Facebook, Medium, and Linkedin.
Here are my thoughts (so far) since quitting Instagram:
Social media is a drug…
I see Instagram very much like coffee, and the underlying issue is the impact on your diet — in this case, it’s your media diet. Your media diet is comprised of all the information and content you consume in a given day, whether it’s the news or social media or even word of mouth (aka gossip). All of these inputs impact your brain functions in their own way, just like how different foods react differently with different people.
With my coffee example, I used to love coffee and drink like 3 cups (sometimes more) a day. I still love coffee, but a couple months ago I realized how much it really does affect my cognitive functions, basic motor skills, and most importantly my sleep. Back in March, during a time of peak work stress, I realized that coffee would only distress my stomach more than it already was and thus accelerate my feelings of anxiety. One cup of coffee would make me incredibly shaky (hand tremors and leg restlessness when sitting at my desk). Further, my sleep was already horrible around this time because of all the stress, but coffee would just mess with that even more. So I decided I’d quit coffee until my workload dies down and I’m less stressed.
This coffee situation for me is very similar for Instagram. I don’t think I always had a completely unhealthy relationship to it. In fact, I used to be able to go on there and not spend too much time consuming garbage but rather use it as a tool to keep up with people I care about. Also, I was able to keep myself busy with other things in my life (like actually seeing people in person). However, since the pandemic, I think my usage just kept creeping up and up because we’re all at home and all communication with people is virtual anyways.
… and I was addicted.
If I blindfolded you and asked you to open your social media apps (or other favourite apps) on your phone, I am willing to bet you would have relatively no problem getting your fingers to work some magic and open these apps. I got to the point where even though I tried to hide Instagram in a folder at the end of my phone, my fingers adapted and still always knew how to get there as quick as possible.
Once I quit, the first couple days I found myself mindlessly opening my phone and swiping through my phone to a ghost app. I’d get to the place in my phone where Instagram normally was and I’d think, well that was dumb. I did this quite frequently for a couple days, and then my muscle memory slowly forgot the location of this app over the next week or so.
What happened to my brain was similar. I never really noticed how much dopamine (and other “happiness” inducing chemicals) I would get from mindlessly scrolling through Instagram until it was gone. Once it was, I felt numb for a couple days. The withdrawal was kind of scary to be honest. I didn’t realize the hold that this app held on me, but ultimately I was able to see that maybe my relationship with it was not quite what I expected.
Romanticizing life is dangerous
This is an idea that’s been bouncing around my head for quite some time now. The notion that life is not like the movies, where every moment is a grandiose scene with flashy effects and a dramatic soundtrack playing at all times. Life is also not like the highlight reels getting posted on Instagram.
The danger with thinking this way is that when life inevitably throws curveballs at you, or presents a challenging or boring situation, you will be left disappointed at the reality which does not live up to your romanticized expectations. In a way, you are setting yourself up for disappointment when you expect this out of your life, and I think social media only further develops this risk.
There’s this intense pressure to “be someone” these days. A feeling that if you aren’t doing the things that other people are doing, then you’re behind in life. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s immense value in a sense of belonging and feeling connected to a community. However, when these communities are made up of random strangers who we’ve never actually even met before, the question of authenticity comes into play. Are the people who you aspire to be truly showing all the sides of their life? Are you getting an accurate picture for the life which you are imagining for yourself?
This is especially dangerous for people like me. The romantics, the dreamers, the storytellers, the aspirational go-getters, the imaginative innovators, and so on. When we aren’t told the full story of what a certain path may entail, we get lost in our heads with a fictional depiction of what that life could look like. Usually, this also involves glossing over all the negative consequences in an attempt to idealize all the potential positive benefits. So when we see people do cool things online, we think “oh I can and should do that too!” We fail to realize all the hard work and struggle that comes alongside doing those cool things. We fail to realize that these peoples’ lives probably still have a lot of boring segments to them — time spent commuting, editing a piece of content, doing personal admin tasks, etc. All we see is the 15 second highlight reel from 15 hours of hard work.
I’ve seen this in myself numerous times. When starting a new job (like the one I just quit a couple weeks ago), I can get caught up in all the future opportunities it will bring me without realizing the cost it will have on my mental health. When starting a new side-project, I can sometimes get caught up in how much impact the project can make, or how much money it might be able to produce, without realizing how much work it will actually take to get there. When starting a new relationship, I can get lost in the idea of where the relationship could go rather than who that person really is, where we are right now, and the time and energy I need to invest to be a good/healthy partner.
When this happens, I need to take a step back and really look at where I am right now. I need to stay in touch with reality and make sure I don’t blindfold myself to the negative consequences of a potential life path. I need to…
Balance romanticism with reality.
I could write a whole other story on this, but point is that people like myself need to be really honest with their dreams versus reality, and whether they align. One way to to do this is to have a skeptic mindset with the content we consume on social media. Instead of seeing something online and thinking “oh that’s cool, my life is so boring compared to that” maybe we should think questions like:
“I wonder how much effort this took to be able to do this?”
“I wonder what struggles this person faces on a day to day?”
“Is this content an accurate depiction of this person’s life?”
Asking these types of questions allows us to ground ourselves to reality while still enjoying cool content and stories that people share. It allows us to appreciate others more, because we can begin to understand that they also have struggles and are also just another human being like you. They have their own doubts, fears, insecurities and just general shit that they’re working through.
I also want to note that I’m not saying romanticism is completely bad here. I think it can be very useful to think of yourself as the main character of your own story. The problem is when you set expectations that reality cannot fulfil, and I find that these expectations are derived from seeing other people do things and thinking that I need to also do those things or fit a certain mold to feel like I belong or that I am worthy (which is total BS). I’ll get back to this point shortly, but first let’s talk about recency bias.
Recency bias is a cognitive bias in our short-term memory which favours the more recent events over historical events. For example, if you write a grocery list and forget the list at home when you actually go to the grocery, you’ll likely remember the last couple things on the list but will completely forget the middle of the list. It’s the same with content online — you can probably remember the last couple things you saw on your feed, but probably cant remember much from when you were scrolling yesterday. Or if you consume slightly longer-form stuff like youtube videos, podcasts, or even movies, you’ll likely remember these types of content for a week or so.
Fortunately, I’ve been blessed (or cursed, depending on the day) with a pretty good short term memory, but this feeds into my recency bias. When I talk to my friends, I find myself often regurgitating things I recently saw online or was recently told by another friend. Even when I try to have a more deep conversation with Max for example, we both tend to bring in concepts from recent podcasts we consumed or videos we watched within the past couple days.
This isn’t a bad thing necessarily. A good amount of the content that Max and I do end up talking about has some sort of deeper value to us (at least compared to the photos and videos of hot and rich people doing things that hot and rich people do). However, I was starting to notice that sometimes we’d both be quick to forget some of the things we talked about. Only certain things were actually a recurring topic or theme in our conversations, and it made me wonder how much of my current identity is actually just tied to what I have watched recently? How much of my current self is just a remnant of the content that I’ve recently consumed? Who are you when you don’t have something to prove? This leads into my next thought…
I care too much about what other people think, but who am I when nobody’s watching?
My childhood and all the experiences that I’ve had have led me to a natural internal need to please other people. As a kid, I never felt good enough. I sometimes still don’t feel good enough. So I go on to “develop myself” so I can help other people and do things that people care about. What do people care about though? What are the things I can do to make people think that I am good enough to be in their lives? As mentioned above, a lot of people find that answer from the content we consume.
Recency bias doesn’t just affect the topics of my conversations, but it also impacts my short term goals and aspirations. I see other people do things and receive a lot of validation online, which leads me to also want to do them — because who doesn’t love validation? A lot of this feeling is tied to my internal biases for pleasing others, and I remember back in high-school (at the peak of my insecurity) I would plan cool things with my friends just to have something to post and show people what I’m up to and that I’m not a total loser. In reflection of these past habits, I became curious to see “who am I really, especially when nobody’s watching?”
It’s a difficult question to answer, but it’s necessary to be truly in touch with yourself. In being self aware of who I am when nobody’s watching, I get to develop on my journey to love myself. I know I love to play music and sing loudly in the shower. I love getting coffee and dancing in the rain. I love taking in beautiful sights and going to see live music and making random strangers smile. There are countless things I love to do that I would totally do by myself, and have done by myself. I used to go on dates with myself just to do more of the things I love, but I found social media just distracted me from that. It gave me all this noise for other things I could be doing, when in reality I already have this great plethora of ways to enjoy myself.
So what now?
Given all my thoughts above, I began to think about the future of my relationship with social media. I do think it has a role in our society with many of its own pros and cons, however, I do also think that we must be more diligent in how we approach our consumption and even creation of content on these platforms.
Is the content we are consuming valuable to us?
I don’t think content is completely invaluable. I think we can still learn a lot from social media. In an effort to balance my consumption, I had to ask if the content was valuable to me, and whether it just stayed in my short term memory or actually got written into my long term memory. This goes back to the recency bias, because the way to counteract recency bias and pull something into your long term memory is to actively recall this memory/idea.
For most of the content I found on Instagram, I had no need to share it with others or recall the content in my daily life. Maybe I’d share a meme or something funny to my friends every once in a while, but otherwise there were few pieces of content that actually had enough substance to translate into a meaningful conversation with a friend. There were very few pieces of content which I willingly wanted to actively recall because I thought it was insightful and could help change/challenge my worldview and perspectives. Don’t get me wrong, this content does exist and there are some very incredible creators out there who aim to share this type of stuff, but my point is that most of the other stuff is just noise.
Thus, in assessing whether the content is valuable I have to ask myself — would I want to talk about this thing in a week, a month, a year, or a decade? I find the longer the timeframe, the more potential impact it might have on your life. This isn’t a hard set rule, but just a guideline I’ve found that seems to work for me.
The creator’s dilemma
As someone who identifies as a creator, all these thoughts make it difficult to navigate creating content. I want to share incredible content, but I don’t want to share content that makes people think “oh my life is not as great as his.” This is hard though because as much as I want to be authentic and raw, I also have developed all these skills to be able to put a nice picture together. I’ve learnt a bit of the art around how to keep a viewer engaged by captivating them with something pretty or fascinating to look at.
I don’t want to share content that is not valuable. I want to create content that makes people actually think, maybe see a concept differently, and actually provide value. I get very inspired by Nathaniel Drew, whose content mainly revolves around his search for mental clarity. I connect with that mission so deeply and his content always leaves me re-evaluating where I am in life and whether I should challenge myself to make some changes. I aspire to be able to also create content that challenges people to become better versions of themselves, in a non-toxic way. I don’t want to just show off to feed my ego and make people feel bad about not having the latest tech or trendy clothing styles. I want people to feel good about actually consuming anything I create.
Lastly, will I come back?
I don’t know yet. I think I need to keep working out how to healthily approach my relationship with Instagram before jumping back in. If I am to have any influence in the digital (and real) world, I want to be able to empower and connect people in ways that allows them to be their authentic selves. I’m still figuring out how to do this in a way that is authentic to myself as well, but I think I will come back eventually. Who knows, might be sooner than later. In any case, I just know that it needs to be intentional and not for some superficial reason like to get likes or money. It has to be for me, and it has to be for anyone who chooses to be part of my community.
Thank you for reading! I hope you found value in this, and if you did please feel free to connect with me — I’d love to have a conversation with you and get your thoughts on this topic as well. For now, have a great rest of your day!