My Life Without Followers 

A woman's holding an smart phone

by Sam Sturken 

“Social Media Doesn’t Matter to Me…”

I used to laugh (quietly) at the people who told me they had decided to delete their social media apps off of their phones. I laughed because it made me uncomfortable, because I knew I couldn’t do it, and because I hated the way anyone who ever told me this seemed to be bragging about it. Big deal, I would think, social media doesn’t matter to me.

 I have long been criticized for how much time I spend on my phone. My friends would get annoyed, my family members felt hurt, and my teachers felt ignored and disrespected.  They were all right to feel that way, and I take full responsibility.  I have spent so much of my life scrolling through my phone to see what everyone else was up to rather than being present with the people in front of me.

Life Without a Phone

If you had told me one year ago that I’d have to spend six weeks without my cell phone I would have panicked to the point of tears. I would have tried to scheme a way into keeping it on me at all times, in order to ensure that I never missed anything. But I did it. I spent over a month without my phone attached to my side, like an extra appendage.

I’ll be honest, being without my phone caused me some anxiety, but it also made me feel really empowered.  I was able, for the first time in years, to live my life through my eyes only, not through the lens of how I thought my followers or Facebook friends would view it if I were to post a picture. I was able to exist in my own space, to be present with those around me and with my own thoughts. I was able to sit and think for myself without being interrupted by the various comments that flutter through my mind as I scroll through social media.

The Dark Hole of Social Media

Of course, those six weeks came to an end. I was reunited with my phone and, in turn, social media. I vowed to turn off notifications for and limit my time on all of the social media apps on my phone: Snapchat, Facebook, VSCO, and, of course, Instagram. I did well for a while, and I felt really good about it. I’m able to use this in moderation, I thought, and I was well aware that my life was better for it.  Time went on and I began to check the apps more. I turned on my notifications for Snapchat again and slowly bent the rules I had set for myself—mostly time limits—around checking Instagram and Facebook.  Before I knew it, I was almost as bad as I had been years ago, when everyone around me was getting frustrated with me and my social media dependence.

I had slipped back into the deep, dark hole of social media. I discovered, however, that each of these apps did not affect me in the same way. Snapchat actually lifts my mood, as my closest friends and I send hilarious pictures of ourselves to one another. Facebook makes me laugh often, too, especially now that there are so many memes and videos circulating to balance out Laura who updates her friends when the red light she’s waiting at turns green, and Jennie, who likes to post each of her grades online for everyone to see.

Coping With Discomfort and Inadequacy

Instagram is an entirely different story for me. Sitting still makes me anxious. Having a blank mind makes me anxious. In these moments of discomfort, I reach for Instagram to cope, to keep my mind busy. This only exacerbates the problem. Seeing other people’s polished images of a distorted and utterly impossible reality makes my heart sink. I have discovered that I am not alone in feeling this.

An article published by TIME recounts a study done by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health: Instagram was “associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and FOMO,” or the fear of missing out. This same article goes on to say that:

“Social media posts can also set unrealistic expectations and create feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem…This may explain why Instagram, where personal photos take center stage, received the worse scores for body image and anxiety.”

This concept that Instagram and feelings of inadequacy are directly connected is not novel: it is something that Carmen Papaluca, who is working toward her Ph.D. at Notre Dame, has been studying for some time.  She conducted research on females aged 18 to 25 and found that many participants felt like they were not good enough, though for those who were in their late teens and early twenties felt bad mostly about their appearances, and those on the older end of her subject group felt that their own lives—both social and professional—“lacked meaning” and did not measure up to those of their peers.  

. . .

The Ongoing Cycle

After experiencing these effects for myself and reading these articles, I decided to become someone I used to laugh at—mostly out of envy, but also out of ignorance. I deleted Instagram off of my phone. There were periods of increased anxiety, for sure, when I would feel uncomfortable in a situation, like when I’m sitting somewhere alone, and then have nothing to rely on to distract myself. For the most part, though, it went pretty well.

I noticed an instant improvement in my mood. I have gone out in public several times without any makeup on, felt markedly better about what I am doing and the way that I look, enjoyed the scenery around me rather than trying to capture its best angle through a lens, and been present. I have been available to talk to those around me and am able to give my friends and family my undivided attention—something they have deserved and been cheated of for too long.

Once I had spent a couple of weeks without the app on my phone and became more comfortable with having an unoccupied mind, I re-downloaded it.  I thought that I’d somehow overcome my dependency on it, and figured I was safe to use it again–I figured I had the ability to use it in moderation.  I was wrong.

Rejecting the Cultural Norm

As much as I wish I could say “I found the solution,” or that “balance is possible for me,” I can’t.  It isn’t possible. Just as I had the last time, where I’d come back from a social media hiatus, I found myself completely wrapped up in the pressure to be anyone other than myself.  The work I’d done around my own worthiness and feeling comfortable in my own skin in the weeks I’d spent without Instagram was undone in minutes.

I admire the people who can strike a balance with social media, who can share without judging themselves too stringently, who can scroll through their feeds without combatting intolerable feelings of shame and unworthiness.  More than that, however, I applaud the people who inspired me to take this challenge–the individuals who care for and understand enough about themselves to know that social media is not healthy for them, and who take action based on this knowledge, despite it being against the cultural norm.

I encourage anyone who struggles the way I have as a direct result of social media to just try life without it.  If I had known how much better and more secure I would feel without constantly obsessing over how my life, my body or my achievements appear in comparison to everyone else’s, I would’ve done it years ago.