My junior year of high school, I wrote a mock TEDx talk not about quitting social media, but about being angry with my peers for being addicted to it. In the talk — which I never gave — I expressed frustration at conversations cut short by Snapchat notifications, petty teenage drama unfolding in disappearing groupchats and the gnawing fear that I was missing out on something everyone else knew about. I determined the singular root of my tween existential angst to be social media. The underlying loneliness I — and, I now suspect, many of my developing peers – felt as a result of our time of life was compounded by the fact that at any moment, precious attention could be snatched away by a notification.The people that were in, were in, co-opted into a digital social circle that was equally awkward and daunting to enter.
In the talk, I expressed a righteous indignation that social media was bad and that staying off it was inherently good. I find it ironic — and perhaps indicative of just how addictive these platforms are — that a few short months later I would find myself taking a different stance, pleading with my staunch anti-social media parents to let me create and curate a new digital presence. Today, I write with significantly less righteousness. I know how integral these digital platforms are to modern social and professional life, especially following the pandemic, but I carry an intense weariness about the role monetized and addictive platforms have on social relationships and self-awareness.
I stayed away from social media throughout much of high school. Always leery of the oddly specific Facebook ads I would see following dinner conversation my mom asked me to hold off as long as possible, to my vehement chagrin. I threw out every argument possible: that I was being left out, that I was missing out on school events, that I wasn’t able to keep up with friends who lived far away.
Adding in a new social media platform was only on the table when absolutely necessary: first came GroupMe, because it was what my high school soccer team used, then it was Snapchat, because I had made some international friends and “WhatsApp was weird,” and finally it was Instagram, prompted by my acceptance to Yale and the thought that there was simply no way for me to meet my new classmates beyond having a robust profile. I was thrilled I was finally able to wield a worthy justification for joining the platforms. In reality, I just wanted to be “in.”
I charged forward with each new app, wanting both to make up for lost time and cement my place in the social matrix I now had access to. It was as if I was finally able to find the address to the party, and now I just needed my friends to open the door.
Looking back, it is incredible the rapidity with which I became addicted. I found a small amount of contentment in reading the profiles of all the newly admitted Yalies on the Yale ‘25 Instagram page — but man alive, everyone used a lot of exclamation points. I could also see how my earlier frustration at social media had put me on an island: I was now receiving the hundreds of daily inputs that all my peers were, and these inputs were exhausting. I considered the old me that had written the TEDx talk woefully ignorant of all the good things social media and screens had to offer.
When I arrived at Yale, I continued my religious devotion to Snapchat and Instagram. The minute details of long nights both out and in came to be recorded in 4K quality, many of which I now regret. I would post near-daily updates to private and public stories, documenting my new, exciting and exclusive surroundings with a sickening regularity. My screen time was exponentially high, compounded by the hours I now spent on my laptop. In fact, there are several notable photos from first-year fall where as my friends smile for the camera, I stand off to the side, head bowed, about to send a Snap. Even surrounded by all the things I came looking for in college, I was hunched under the weight of my attention being stolen from myself.
By January, I was exhausted at the prospect of a new semester. My “memories” bank in Snapchat was less a raucous reminder of all the fun I had but of several instances of poor decision-making that made my academic and emotional life at Yale significantly more difficult. I had no desire to see many of the people I messaged regularly in-person, and yet I could not bear the thought of leaving their messages unopened, red dots glaring angrily at my synapses. I started to read the ubiquitous magazine editorials of tech writers locking their phones in boxes, changing their devices to grayscale and deactivating their social media accounts. Almost every publication — The Atlantic, Wired, and Time — had devoted significant print space to the idea of unplugging.
I remember waking up one Saturday in the first weeks of my first-year spring semester and Googling how to deactivate Snapchat. I don’t remember exactly why — there was no real catalyst.
Snapchat makes it quite difficult to delete an account. I had to go through several pages of external sites to confirm that yes, I did want to deactivate my account, and yes, I had saved all I wanted to save from the app. In examining my “memories,” — which weren’t really memories at all, just random videos from unimportant parts of my day — I realized that the photos I cared about had all been taken with my camera app. The photos I cared about were actual memories, not just random moments in time when an app told my brain to take a picture.
It took thirty days to fully delete Snapchat, and in the same time I erased almost all of my presence on Instagram. I knew I couldn’t fully delete Instagram — I did, after all, use the platform to stay up to date with campus happenings and faraway family I missed — but I felt this intense pull towards privacy following months of ultra-sharing. I no longer wanted to run my social life in 1s and 0s. I went dark, almost exactly a year after pushing my parents so wholeheartedly to let me lurch into the online digital world.
At the beginning of this summer, my mom, grandmother, and I all read “Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari, a book about a writer leaving his digital life behind to write a novel. I was fully anticipating it to be in the same vein of James Clear’s “Atomic Habits”: a book widely adopted by young people in an attempt to “fix” the attention spans that have rapidly been ripped from our own grasp, yet largely made popular by social media itself. Yet, it was my 87-year-old grandmother recommending it to me, a woman who lacks Wi-fi, a computer, and a cell phone.
“This,” she told us, “really gets at why it’s so hard to talk to one another these days.” Even living in a small town in Minnesota surrounded by lifelong friends and family, she too had picked up on the exhausting effects of attention surrender to digital behemoths.
A year later, and Snapchat is still not on my phone. I briefly recreated an account for communication with an extracurricular group but then deleted it, realizing that anyone who really needed to get in touch with me could just text me. It wasn’t any more complicated than that.
Many of my friends now describe someone’s dependence on Snapchat as something that “gives them the ick,” used more by middle schoolers than a generation of mature young adults looking to form real relationships. Perhaps Snapchat is now “cheugy” — but then I realize that “cheugy” is an equally digitized word.
I know that every generation following ours will have its own Snapchats, Instagrams, TikToks and Twitters — our professional and personal lives are too irrevocably digitized to avoid them altogether. But regardless of ubiquity, there is great joy in moderation. In a phase of life best known for exploration of self and other, it is worthwhile to examine which parts of ourselves are fully our own — attention included.
I’m so tired of social media. I’ve deleted the Instagram app from my phone twice in the past 24 hours. Yesterday, I deleted it to give myself a tolerance break — to reset my social endorphins.
But then I woke up to the text:
“go comment on my post”
“why? i’m not in it?”
“so that it looks like i have friends”
So, being a good friend I redownloaded the app, searched their name, found the post in question, commented and then deleted the app again. Why? I guess maybe I’m susceptible to peer pressure. But I have such a love-hate relationship with social media — it’s kind of like that toxic ex that you know is bad news but whose texts you respond to anyway. The attention is nice. Love to hate it; hate to love it.
Truthfully, I could live without social media. When I first got Instagram and Snapchat, I was mesmerized with the ability to see what other people were doing at every moment of the day. And years later, during the pandemic, the rise of TikTok brought on a new honeymoon phase. “Hold up! You’ve been scrolling for way too long now” —familiar words if you’ve ever spent more than a few minutes scrolling through the FYP.
Social media is great for the most alluring pastime: people watching. There’s no threat of your subjects returning the gaze… except to turn it upon your own, curated posts. It’s exciting to be able to get a look at other people’s lives without the threat of them looking back at you; to be the removed watcher. Capable of seeing, but not to be seen from behind the protection of a screen. It’s the 21st-century equivalent to cutting eye holes in your newspaper. But you want to be watched too.
The FOMO-inducing nature of quitting social media kicks in. It’s so tangible you could reach out into the metaverse and touch it. The apps are so enticing, so easy. It’s satisfying to create this idealized version of yourself that you show to the world. There’s something exciting about knowing that people have their eyes on you; scrolling through your posts and watching your stories. But you are the one in control of what they see. That feeling is addicting. Tune into the social network for your daily dose of dopamine, brought to you by Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. Pick your poison.
For the past few years now, it’s been this back and forth for me. Social media or no social media? Will they, won’t they? To be or not to be? And I don’t think there’s really a way to figure out the right balance. There’s no formula for how to get a grip on social media.
It’s like the casual exchange of “hey how’s it going,” “good, and you?” “good” passing in the dining hall. It’s having the same conversation over and over again. We go through the ritual without giving it a second thought, and it doesn’t really amount to anything. But does that mean I’m going to stop doing it? No.
So I’ll be here, social media-less for the next few days… until someone else tells me to like their post, and I redownload the apps and the cycle begins again.