You know those phone cases all the cool girls had in 2019? It’s a white square in the middle of a clear silicone case that looks and reads like a Jenny Holzer piece: “Social Media seriously harms your mental health.” I remember I almost bought one myself, but then I thought it seemed hypocritical considering I have been a regular user of social media since I was 12 years old. In a Slate article, writer Shannon Palus describes what feels disingenuous about the case more felicitously: “…neither the case, nor the way the women are using it, is effective at subverting Instagram. The phone case isn’t undermining Instagram’s power, as the title suggests. It’s more just a sign that even as consumers become skeptical of the platform, the platform can mutate to accommodate said skepticism.” So, the phone case was just another passing fad of Cool Girls™ like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid turning up their noses at something that they helped pioneer and continue to profit off of. Got it.
But let’s take another look at that message: “Social Media seriously harms your mental health.” Part of my current digital marketing internship relies heavily on social media, particularly Facebook, and from what I have learned through analyzing Facebook ad metrics and targeted messages and studying the viewing habits of audiences is that social media companies, at their core are kind of…insidious. In a capitalist society, they’re goldmines.
In my own words, I would describe social media as a double-edged sword: on one side, it can easily be a suppressor of individuality and original thought, as well as a mill of inauthentic, mind-numbing crap churned out for the purpose of rousing envy in other people while draining your own attention span. (To quote the 1995 cinematic masterpiece Clueless: “That was way harsh, Tai.”) But on the other side of the blade, it can be so fun. Since I began using social media as a literal child, I have years and years of memories, photos, videos, and interactions stored on each account. My Facebook account reminds me of interactions with friends from a decade ago when we unironically used “<3” and talked about Twilight like Nietzsche discussed nihilism.
When you use social media every day for half your life, it’s hard to separate it from natural human habits. I remember in the early years of high school wondering why – security reasons aside – the older kids held their phones at all times as though it were a permanent extension of their bodies. They would go to the bathroom or to their lockers clutching their Blackberries and Sidekicks (which later became iPhones and Androids) as though they could not bear to part with it for even a few minutes. Eventually, I also became someone who had their phone in hand at all times, because what I’ve since realized is that social media and smartphone culture fed our impressionable, underdeveloped brains the belief that being inaccessible meant being insignificant. And that is a concept I have unknowingly held onto until fairly recently.
I deleted the majority of my social media late last year. Social media during a pandemic is just a strange place to be. My brain was constantly overstimulated and exhausted at the same time. I got annoyed at people who acted like COVID-19 wasn’t real and felt the need to post boomerangs of them taking shots at Earl’s happy hour every single weekend. I got annoyed at people who posted about the virus endlessly, as though they were speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Health. Overall, I was just tired of other people taking up the majority of my mental energy. And the worst part was that I still cared about how these same people – most of whom were practically strangers – viewed me on social media. I pride myself on being authentic and honest and yet I found myself spending hours editing photos and drafting up captions or stories that would make me seem like this idealized version of myself that I desperately wanted others to see, even if I couldn’t see her myself.
So first, I deleted Snapchat. Then Tumblr. Both were easy to bid adieu, as I personally found both platforms obsolete in the new decade. Begrudgingly, I kept Facebook, as it is the most convenient way to contact classmates I only knew existed thanks to Canvas and is now a necessity for both my internship (where my account is linked to the Facebook page I run) as well as my weekend job as a server, where I message my coworkers to swap shifts. I did, however, delete half of my “friends” on there, based on the criteria that if I hadn’t spoken to them in two years, then they were unfriended with no hard feelings. The big kahuna was Instagram.
I have a strange relationship with Instagram. I had always viewed it as a sort of public scrapbook that also doubled as my identity card to the world. An Instagram account for my generation is how you display yourself to society. Everything from your number of followers to your feed layout to the stories you post must be carefully curated to fit the persona you present to the outside world. On her podcast, Anything Goes, Gen-Z wunderkind and YouTuber Emma Chamberlain discusses the superficiality of Instagram in an episode aptly-titled “The Instagram Illusion”: “I will put people on a pedestal if I think that they have a cool Instagram,” she admits. In the same episode, she also describes practicing self-awareness, now looking past these illusions and trying to recognize people for who they are, offline. But the fact of the matter is that if someone who has built an entire career through their social media presence thinks that the app can be as insidious and shallow as the rest of us “normal people”, what does that say about Instagram culture?
In pre-COVID times, I genuinely enjoyed Instagram. I liked seeing what my friends and peers and favourite celebrities/public figures were up to. I liked the bit of attention I received when I demonstrated to my followers – most of whom were people I hadn’t spoken to or seen in person in years, if ever – that I was conventionally attractive, funny, and relatively happy. I especially loved Instagram stories. I would flip through my archive as though I were watching home movies of concerts I attended, trips I took, people I spent time with, meals I ate. It was literally a highlight reel of my life, but with a filter to make my face look slimmer or the sunset I saw in Manila more beautiful. We all know deep down that Instagram is not real, but sometimes I think that we prefer the edited versions of our lives sometimes to gloss over our true feelings of unfulfillment and dissatisfaction. Each like or follow almost feels like a small prize that tells us, “Congratulations! You matter today!” But when we attach value to our number of followers or how many likes we got on our last post, we are searching for meaning in the meaningless. And that’s where it becomes tricky.
Life without (most) social media is quiet. Sometimes a little too quiet. But it’s peaceful. I still use TikTok, Pinterest, and YouTube, although I would argue that all of these are not really forms of social media but rather platforms for entertainment in the same vein as Netflix. I’ll admit I had major F.O.M.O. (Fear of Missing Out) at the start of my digital detox, but I’ve since learned that being somewhat inaccessible is a blessing, not a curse. People will find a way to reach you, whether you want them to or not. Friends who want to stay in touch have your number for a reason. Weird men who want to hit you up can easily find your email address through your LinkedIn (Unfortunately, I can vouch for that). Do not question the willpower of those searching for human connection, especially during a pandemic. Additionally, I think that society was not designed for us to keep in touch with everyone. Think about it. When I went through my Facebook friends list the other day, I thought: why do all of these people have access to me? Why does that woman I met at my cousin’s wedding when I was eight know how to contact me, if she ever chose to do so? Why does that guy from my English class in high school need to know where I work or live or what I look like now? This is truly unnatural. We are not meant to hold on to people like Pokémon cards.
The next time you check your feed, ask yourself: Who am I when I’m not thinking about what I can post online? Do I really want these things, or has someone on the internet told me to want these things? Do I really believe or value something, or was I influenced by my peers online into believing/valuing something? What goes on in my brain when it’s not consuming media 24/7?
“Social Media seriously harms your mental health.” Sure, I believe that. For the most part, anyway. What I think the message fails to convey is that social media is not really the problem, it’s how you use it. Yes, Instagram is meaningless, but perhaps that’s exactly how we should look at it. It’s when we allow Instagram and other social media platforms to dictate the way we see ourselves and others – thereby becoming meaningful – that it becomes nefarious. Sometimes, I wonder if everything in my life has to be meaningful. I exhaust myself trying to set an intention in everything that I do. I probably will reactivate my Instagram account one day – I’ve got too many archived Instagram stories on there that I want to look back on. I even fantasize about re-downloading the app sometimes. That said, I don’t exactly know when I will reactivate. I once thought to myself, “perhaps when the pandemic is over.” But I don’t like to set “end of COVID-19” as a date for anything because I have no idea when that will be and that inevitably leads to more frustration. I also told myself, maybe I’ll reactivate it when I don’t feel like I need to have it. But that seems contradictory and unnecessary. So now my criteria is this: I will reactivate my account when I can return to that mentality of seeing Instagram as a scrapbook commemorating the times in my life that I want to remember, and not as a résumé instructing the world how to perceive and value me.