The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and are not representative of the views of The Hysteria Collective as a whole.
CW: mentions of body image, depression, anxiety
A social media detox is described as ‘a conscious elimination of social media use and consumption for a set period of time’, usually on the assumption that this will lead to some form of improved mental health, concentration, or clarity. Despite social media being at the centre of 21st century living, resentment towards our predominantly digital lifestyle is undoubtedly growing – and social media detoxing appears to be a popular antidote.
A report published by Statista Research Department in 2021 found that in the UK roughly 50.89 million people (or 76.35% of the population) use social media. However, the Royal Society of Public Health reported that social media usage is linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression, and poor sleep. So, what is the truth about our relationship to social media, and why do so many people feel conflicted about using it?
Despite the rapid growth of social media occurring in the last few years, the earliest known form of social media was created in the 1970s at the University of Illinois. The system, named PLATO, allowed users to instant message and is suspected to be the first ever online chatroom. What once was a phenomenal technological advancement has now transformed into an ineffable power that most of us rely on every day, so it is unsurprising that many of us struggle to comply with the ever-changing behaviours of social media platforms and what they encourage in their users.
There are plenty of valid reasons for and against banishing social media from your life, however temporary, but will a detox really make any improvement to how you live? Or are we too far gone in our devotion to the digital?
The Pros of Detoxing
The thing I dislike most about the way I use social media is that I know it takes away from other activities I would spend my spare time doing. Even as I write this, I find myself gravitating towards my phone to pick up Instagram or TikTok when I have a minute extra. I’m constantly telling myself I will start to read more, or start painting again, or get outside to exercise, but when the comfort of my bed and my mobile are right there, it becomes challenging not to give in. Without any social media apps, I would probably need my phone for a collective five minutes to text my mum or phone a friend, leaving about 11 hours and 55 minutes a day to spend doing activities which actually fulfil me, and that I know I’ll feel good about at the end of the day.
If you are someone who does find that social media usage negatively impacts your mood, it is undeniable that moving away from the screen will improve your mental wellbeing. It is tough to think of a much better reason for digital detoxing than that. Social media has the power to expose us to people and lifestyles we would have previously been totally unaware of, and the natural human tendency to compare ourselves to others does not often end well. For young and impressionable audiences, over-exposure to social media may become a catalyst for low self-esteem on a scale that no other generation thus far has dealt with. However, if you’re anything like me, being absent from social media can also cause spouts of anxiety. In patches where I am less active online, I worry about missing updates or messages from my friends, or important socio-political events that I should be clued up about. However, I think this comes down to my unhealthy reliance on social media to provide me with everything I need instantly. If you want to catch up with friends, call them. If you want to know what’s happening in the world, make the effort to buy your favourite newspaper or magazine to fill you in. They might take more time out of your day, but it will probably more enjoyable than staring at the same screen for hours on end.
My most recent gripe with social media has come from the new forms of activism that are cropping up across platforms, and the expectation for individuals to keep track of each step of every new social movement and comment on it publicly, which in turn encourages excessive social media consumption. I used to be the person that posted about almost every cause I believed in on my social media platforms, and I completely understand and respect those who continue to do so. But I began to notice the pressure I felt to comment on every problem that cropped up, and my worries that people would think badly of me or my sincerity on other posts if I didn’t keep up my public narration. Whilst I think that there is a lot to be said for the positive changes social media has made in terms of political and cultural progressions, it is not normal, nor should it be expected, for people across the world (particularly children and teenagers who use social media the most) to be the voices of social movements they have little understanding and no experience of. Now I find it much more beneficial to share information or platforms for helping others with my friends and family and have these conversations in person, as opposed to preaching to a digital audience that probably know about as much as I do. It sometimes becomes unclear whether the Instagram posts from individuals about the latest political scandals are created out of public expectation rather than genuine interest and knowledge, and I saw this becoming something I was slipping into. It seems now like a social media detox may be what it takes to create more authentic interaction with social justice causes.
Regrettably, social media also has a tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive. There is constant discussion of who is not doing enough, who needs to do better, who has most recently had a public blip, and why your opinions about X are wrong and you should have different ones. Even people who use social media to post pictures of themselves are accused of promoting ‘unrealistic beauty standards’ or ‘promoting unhealthy lifestyles’ depending on public perception of their body types. Whilst the reaction to these harmful attitudes has resulted in a seemingly positive uprising of influencers hoping to break the standards, they are only responding to the problem by continuing to fuel the fire of the space that gave birth to it. Would it not be better to instead move away from platforms which give rise to such destructive attitudes?
The Cons of Detoxing
Unfortunately, we can’t always rely on traditional media to give us reliable and accurate reports on what is happening locally, let alone around the world. I credit a large amount of my knowledge about politics and current affairs to social media, and I’m under no illusion that I would probably be a more ignorant person if I had not spent my formative years on social media, watching and learning. It is also no secret that social media movements have impacted legislation and government action, such as the online impact created by the #MeToo movement in 2017 or #BlackLivesMatter protests in 2020 which began through the hashtag being used online. It is chilling to consider how much more governments around the world may be getting away with without pressures from online communities for reform if everyone took on a digital detox.
Social media has successfully removed a series of boundaries that used to limit our opportunities and interactions and has provided a new level of accessibility to many aspects of our everyday lives. People who prefer not to or cannot travel far are still able to form friendships with and learn about people across the world. Contact can be kept between long distance friends and relationships in ways it couldn’t before. Whilst previously our world was limited to what we had on our doorstep, today physical boundaries are almost non-existent. Without social media, you sacrifice these privileges.
In choosing to take on a social media detox, you might feel like you are admitting defeat. Why shouldn’t social media have a place for every type of person that wishes to use it, rather than forcing those who don’t follow the newly created status quo off of the platforms? Detoxifying yourself involves removing something that is harmful to you, but it must be questioned whether social media is inherently harmful, or if it has been allowed to become so by those who rule it. Rather than detoxing, could it be more beneficial to consider how to reinvent your own social media presence to add something valuable to your routine?
Above all, I go back to social media as a source of comfort. When I want to do something mindless or distract myself from stress, little feels better than scrolling through memes, pictures of friends, or videos designed to make me laugh. I like knowing that wherever I am or whatever, I’m doing I am always connected to something bigger through my socials, and I can rely on them to be there for me when I need them.
The reality is that the lifestyle that most of us have become accustomed to through social media is very difficult to escape from now, no matter how much we resent it. New friends will always want to connect with you on socials, and your friends will always use WhatsApp, Facebook or Instagram to contact you. Having an online presence has become an expectation rather than a choice, and those without it are often branded strange or out of touch. However, it feels like social media is losing control of itself and its users. I don’t think anyone is quite sure how our current relationship with social media will impact our futures, or whether it will be a resoundingly negative or positive thing. It comes down to whether you believe your relationship with social media is healthy or not, whether it serves a positive purpose in your life, and what control you have over it. I can acknowledge that I use my accounts out of habit rather than enjoyment the majority of the time, and there are other things I sacrifice to continue scrolling.
I have spent years curating my social feeds to serve me and my interests in the best way I can, but I still cannot convince myself that consistent usage is benefitting me. So why do I remain so reluctant to give it up for good? Perhaps the problem with detoxing from social media is that it encourages an all-or-nothing attitude, when the reality is that social media is much more than simply good or bad for us. Social media today occupies a moral space like nothing else we have encountered before, so we can forgive ourselves for finding this battle testing.
Image courtesy of Prateek Katyal