Instagram was my go-to app. It was the first thing I checked in the morning, and the last thing I scrolled through before bed. When I opened my phone, I immediately opened Instagram. It was my “compulsion loop,” as Bill Davidow writes in “Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction.” And I wanted to quit—or at least change these behaviors.
I’m a high school teacher, and recently, as part of a media literacy unit specifically geared toward examining our use of (addiction to) social media, I asked my 75 sophomores to give up their self-defined most-used app. For my students, this meant primarily giving up Snapchat or YouTube; for me, it meant I had to delete Instagram.
I allowed my students to choose their own timeframe, and I told them it was okay to fail. I wouldn’t grade them on if they could accomplish their own goal, but rather how well they could write about the experience and how well they could analyze their own use of social media based on this experiment. The average length of time was 24 hours, but some selected only three hours (and couldn’t even make it those three hours without checking Snapchat). A few didn’t even try; they couldn’t bear the thought of losing their streaks or losing touch with all their friends—even for a few hours. Some made it a full week—and those who did reported increased productivity, enhanced face-to-face relationships, and “rewired” minds, as one student described it.
After nine days completely off of Instagram (my goal was one week), I felt many of the same emotions that my students described in their papers, including:
After days 1 and 2:
1. FOMO: The fear of missing out came up in almost every student paper. I, too, wondered who was posting what and what I might be missing. In real life, my sister said, “I tagged you in a post, but you don’t know that because you’re off IG.” What’s clear to me is our real lives and our social media lives are so intertwined these days that even when you’re “off,” everyone reminds you that you should be “on.” My students wrote how everywhere they went, they noticed their friends on Snapchat or they overheard people say, “Snapchat me,” and then they felt like they were missing out.
2. Time Traps: When you simply give up one app, you find yourself spending more time on another. For me, I scrolled through Twitter more. I had to stop myself a few times, thinking, “What’s the point of giving up IG, if I’m just spending my time here instead.” I still took photos, and I posted them to Twitter instead.
3. Dazed & Confused: When I first deleted the app, I didn’t know where to go when I first opened my phone. I was so accustomed to opening Instagram that I found myself confused at the interface of my phone. My fingers went to open IG, but the icon wasn’t there.
Once I made it past the 48-hour mark, however, something started to shift: I stopped thinking about what I might post. I stopped taking photos altogether. For example, I went for my morning walk and witnessed a beautiful sunset without snapping a photo to upload to Instagram. I felt present in my own life and less concerned about sharing what I was doing with the world, both friends and strangers. One student wrote, “I feel like if I don’t post about something I did and people don’t see it, it actually didn’t happen.” And while I don’t think I was quite there, I suppose my brain was trained to see the world through possible posts followed by potential likes. As someone who came of age in the 90s, this now seems incredibly messed up. Remember when we did amazing things and couldn’t share them immediately with the world?
I think about this all the time. When I graduated from college in 1998, I spent one month on the road with one of my best friends. We traveled to a dozen states, crashing on friend’s couches or staying in seedy motels or sometimes sleeping in the back of my SUV. We visited the Grand Canyon, hiked the Rocky Mountains, swam in the Pacific Ocean, drove up Highway 1 all along California’s coast—and shared the experience with no one other than each other. I took some photos on a disposable camera and kept a journal. But there was no blogging or posting to Facebook—and we definitely weren’t keeping in touch constantly with our family and friends back home via anything other than a pay-phone call every few days. Forgive me, if I still find this romantic.
The problem is we are already too far gone. The days before the constant updating are over, and now we are infiltrated with each other’s life events, random thoughts, and this-is-what-I-ate-for-breakfast posts. Because, I admit, I couldn’t stay off of Instagram longer than nine days. Last week, I downloaded IG to my phone again and started liking other people’s photos and watching people’s stories, but I am yet to post (albeit, I know that’s about to change).
My own experiment taught me that I can give up Instagram if I wanted to, but that it’s difficult to sustain giving up all social media—Twitter, Facebook—because it’s how I stay connected, how I work, how I keep up with the news, and how I know my friends are safe during Hurricane Irma. As I told my students, the goal of this assignment was not to get them (or me) to quit their most-used app altogether but to critically think about the role social media (of whatever kind) play in our lives—What’s valuable? What’s harmful? What’s excessive?
These are questions I will continue to ask myself (and I hope my students do, too) as I use social media—even as I secretly hope society throws itself back to the 90s when we lived without sharing our every moves.