So, just like any toxic relationship, it was time for a breakup.
I’m joining a growing group of people in quitting these kinds of apps. I suspect more might follow since the U.S. surgeon general recently issued an advisory explaining there isn’t enough evidence to say whether social media is “sufficiently safe” for teenagers.
“It is no longer possible to ignore social media’s potential contribution to the pain that millions of children and families are experiencing,” wrote Vivek H. Murthy, referencing the ongoing mental health crisis in young people.
I’ve gotten mixed reactions to quitting; some people were excited for me, and others were doubtful or quick to assume it’s some sort of brag. It’s not. For me, the bad parts of social media were outweighing the good, by a lot.
Last year, my best friend Bridgette and I started journaling, and it led me to reevaluate how I used social media — why share my every thought online when I can write them down instead?
Then, in the beginning of January, I watched a YouTube video titled “I replaced Social Media with Micro-Journalling for 1 Year.” It inspired me to try a year off social media, as it felt like the algorithm sent it my way for a reason.
I immediately texted Bridgette notifying her of this decision.
Her response? “Man I wanna do this too,” to which I responded “DO IT DO IT.”
Thus began the official challenge.
We knew to have a chance at success, we needed parameters: Instagram and Snapchat — the apps that stole hours of our waking lives — were not to be on our phones from Jan. 3, 2023, until 2024.
I was also not going to be using TikTok, but I had already deleted it about six months before starting the break, after realizing how much of a distraction it had become in my life.
There were some exceptions to this challenge, but no re-downloading or active use, and absolutely no posting.
We also made a bet that the first person to lose owed the other person a sushi dinner, which was excellent motivation because we are both way too stubborn to pay.
I used social media constantly in high school, but especially during the covid-19 pandemic. Being stuck at home was pretty awful for my mental health, as I’m sure any member of Gen Z can attest. But I found communities on these apps that fueled my need for conversation.
Social media became my form of expression. I tried to authentically capture my life on my profiles, and my identity was broadcast online for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people to see.
Things quickly went downhill when likes and comments became my validation. I developed an obsession with the way I was perceived online and spent entire days, weeks, months, on my phone. Despite being in constant communication with people, I had never been more alone. My screen time was at least eight hours per day, a terrifying number.
My mental health improved when I came to college, but here’s the thing: the nature of these apps hasn’t. Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are designed to be addictive. Studies have shown that likes and comments create rushes of dopamine that give users a “high,” which is especially dangerous for teenagers because it can rewire our brains to constantly seek immediate gratification. The apps encourage us to compare ourselves to others, a losing game every time.
When I started the challenge, it was difficult at first to resist the muscle memory of opening the apps. So, every time I wanted to open one, I would either journal or text someone instead. If I had burning thoughts I wanted to share, I would jot them down. If I craved socialization and wanted to check in with loved ones, I would text.
It only took about a week for the initial weirdness to fade.
This blackout had a rocky start when it forced me to face my reality head-on. In late January, I got my tonsils out. Not only did this mean 7-10 days of brutal recovery at home, but it was also the day before spring semester began.
If I had spent “sylly week” (the first week of classes, short for syllabus week), looking at every fun moment I was missing at school, my loneliness would have stung more.
Rather than doom-scroll for a week, I watched a ton of movies. It was a humbling, grounding experience, and something I haven’t felt in a long time: living entirely in a lousy moment without escaping via social media.
By the first month, the urge to open the forbidden apps vanished completely.
I soon noticed some differences in how I behaved. On one five-hour car ride with friends to New York, the only time I unlocked my phone was to control the music. I am certain if I had access to Instagram and Snapchat, they would have lured me out of the moment I was living in.
This car ride became an incredible opportunity to talk with my friends — who were also unplugged for these five hours. We sang along to classic rock and made plans for our trip. The only thing that mattered to us was the present; we were not trying to make the ride a shareable moment.
For the New York trip and other travels, it was odd for me to not post these memories online. In the past, each trip had dedicated Instagram posts that captured the highlights of my adventures. I wanted to show off.
Instead, I now keep my favorite photos in various albums on my phone, and when friends and family asked, I showed them the pictures of the beignets I ate in New Orleans or the sleek jumpsuit I wore to my cousin’s wedding. Instead of mass sharing to hundreds of people, only the closest people in my circle — the ones who checked in individually — got to hear my updates.
As someone who struggled with keeping things private online, this was a great way to realize that not everyone needs to know everything. The beauty of these memories is that they only existed for me and the people I chose to share them with.
I also realized that the moments I mindlessly used social media were when I was bored, like waiting for class to start or in line for food. Scrolling was a safety net. When I needed a distraction, they were there. Instead of pulling myself out of reality when I have time to myself, I embrace the silence and glance around. And honestly, it’s nice.
Another issue was the constant overwhelming sensation that there’s always more to look at — Instagram pictures of a friends’ vacation, trending videos on TikTok, a recap of an influencer’s day on Snapchat. If I wanted to stay on these apps all day, there was always another rabbit hole. Now it feels good to know when I’m done; there’s not more to look at.
I recently went to the Outer Banks for the weekend, and I had less than an hour of screen time each day I was there — a huge feat for me, and completely unimaginable three years ago.
I’m not perfect, and sometimes I still spend far too much time on my phone. But there’s a difference in how I’m using it. I ended up downloading a ton of games. This way, when I want to sit on my phone and do nothing, I do. I’m just playing solitaire or 2048 instead of scrolling through Instagram posts. I still get to be lazy and waste time without hurting my mental health.
While I have no regrets about this cleanse so far, I definitely lost contact with a lot of people. I never announced my plan online, so only those who saw me in-person knew. This meant losing touch with many friends I made in the pandemic that I only communicated with on social media.
We’ll see what this summer brings, likely a mix of challenges as I navigate a full-time internship, studying abroad and limited connection to my college friends as they embark on their own plans.
But there’s a comfort in knowing that the return back to school will be filled with updates — new stories and memories, shared face to face instead of over a screen. Until then, I’ll embrace each moment as it comes and jot them down in my journal as I go.
For years, I poured my identity into living two lives: one online and one in-person. So far, 2023 has been a nice break from that and a reminder of the beauty of an offline world. Bridgette and I are still in a competition over who will pay for sushi dinner, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be me.
Jenna Bloom is a journalism student at the University of Maryland.