That feel when you have lots of internet “friends” but no one to hang out with IRL.
This month, I quit Instagram. I’d been contemplating the deletion of my account for several months after uninstalling the app from my phone. The recent closure of a relationship made me consider my priorities even more.
Before taking action, I often found myself scrolling through Instagram’s feed when I was bored. Instead of doing something more fulfilling like reading, drawing, or writing, I sought out instant gratification in the form of hearts and comments. Despite interacting with lots of people online, I often felt quite lonely.
I’m not alone in these feelings. Many avid social media users report feelings of anxiety and loneliness. Here’s what I did to reduce those feelings and find positivity in my usage of social media.
Step 1: Fight the pressure
The fear of missing out, or FOMO, is a form of anxiety that fuels social media platforms. After all, any minute you look away from social media is one less minute of being informed. This is amplified on networks like Twitter, which advertises itself as the world’s news platform.
Social media generates revenue when it keeps you distracted. A constant feed of new content is wonderfully addicting. It’s also anxiety-inducing. Keeping track of content created by millions of people is impossible, not to mention overwhelming. Nonetheless, it’s hard to detach yourself when everything is unfolding in front of your eyes.
If a social media platform makes you feel pressured to participate, you may need to distance yourself from it. Last year, I uninstalled Twitter from my phone because I could no longer stand the information overload. I also avoid visiting the site with the goal of consuming content. Important news still reaches me, although it takes a little extra time.
Step 2: Avoid burnout
Social media can feel like a game. Players must create content that pushes them to the top by gaining engagement points. That content underscores how players are seen as people, which can affect their social and corporate standing. In other words, it forces everyone to strategize and market themselves. This is often work people do during their off hours, meaning they never have a chance to rest.
Whether one tweets, streams on Twitch, or creates Snapchat stories, social media requires an exhausting level of transparency. It requests the sharing of nearly every part of one’s life. Almost anything is fair game — what you wear, what you eat, what you do, or what you think — and it should all be available to the public for free. After all, it might result in some great benefits if you’re popular enough.
Popularity feels key to winning at social media. If you get a high number of followers, you may be labeled an influencer. Influencer status gets you free trips and swag, with social media sharing as a form of reimbursement. Followers hang on your every word and invite you to give the next hot take on fiery topics du jour. This all sounds great unless you also have friends, family, and a full-time occupation. Your real-life friends and family will become less important as you accept more gigs that build your brand. Your occupation will become sidelined as you build a community around yourself.
In other words, burnout is especially easy when you play the popularity game on social media. This is especially true if you already have a full-time occupation. If you’re the competitive type, you may need to reconsider your relationship with social media in order to find a more ideal balance. For example, I now only post professional news on Twitter. By avoiding the sharing of rambling thoughts and closing my direct message inbox, I was able to separate my personal identity from the service.
Step 3: Determine value
Social media platforms can be valuable for everyday people despite the stressful factors I mentioned above. Some help you keep in touch with friends and family. Others enable you to find inspiration. Most allow you to reach a massive audience and find your niche. All of them will happily receive your time and data.
As a social media user, the best way to have a positive relationship with a platform is to understand the ways it benefits you. For example, Twitter is valuable to me because it has introduced me to many professional opportunities. Facebook lets me chat with several different friend groups. Mastodon is a place where I can microblog without social pressure nor Nazis.
You should also identify platforms that work against you. As a highly competitive, self-aware person, I think Instagram didn’t fit well with my personality. It made me feel like I wasn’t pretty, connected, traveled, or fashionable enough. Logging into the service often felt like consenting to a self-roast. By deleting my Instagram account, I removed a negative trigger from my life.
One final thing to consider is the value of an actual account. Many services modify the experience of users with account in order to suit their so-called “preferences”. This isn’t always ideal. Several of my friends counteract The Algorithm by foregoing accounts. They instead choose to bookmark and regularly visit their favorite content creators the old-fashioned way. Maybe it’s just my Web 1.0 nostalgia, but it was heartening to see that bookmarking is still alive and widely used.
Social media isn’t good or bad as a whole. A platform that brings value to one person may trigger anxiety in another. I would love to see more platforms focus on the types of users that thrive in their environments rather than attempting to capture the most market share. What ways can platforms positively affect their core users, and how can platforms assure that great members of the community don’t get pushed out?
Thoughtfulness is the key to being a happy and healthy social media user. Everyone can and should choose whether or not to participate on each platform out there — and how much attention to give them. Rather than forcing ourselves to merge onto the one true platform, Evangelion-style, we can use social media to augment our real lives. It’s the happiest way to live in our tech-loving society.