“Social Media Use Bears Similarities to Drug Addiction.” The headline of the article blared on my computer screen during my daily morning news scroll. Alarmed, I saved it to my bookmarks to reference for this story—then promptly opened Instagram to see how many likes I had gotten on a photo I had posted of myself eating pasta. The truth is I had pitched the idea of giving up Instagram and writing about my experience over two months ago but kept pushing it back because, well, I couldn’t seem to actually give up Instagram.
Every time I thought about giving it up for a week, I found myself making excuses that ranged from somewhat plausible to grandly fantastical. But how will I know if [insert name of celebrity] posts something we need to cover?” (Answer: Rely on your team members like you already do.) But what if that hot Italian waiter finally decides to DM me and profess his love instead of just watching my stories? (Answer: Respond later and also maybe take a moment to rethink the state of your romantic relationships.) But what if my friends get concerned about my lack of posting and file a missing persons report, causing a statewide manhunt? (Answer: You literally text them every second of every day and also already told them about this story. Also, stop watching so much Law & Order: SVU.)
I was this close to just accepting my addiction and the fact that I would never be able to detox, but in a lucky (or, at the time, unlucky) twist of fate, I went on a trip to Vermont with some friends and immediately dropped my iPhone in the bottom of a lazy river. As I calmly watched my phone sink to the murky depths (kidding—I screamed loudly in a piercing, anguished manner like a part of me was dying), and it dawned on me that I was phone-less for the rest of the weekend, a strange feeling of peace washed over me. This was a sign from the universe—I was sure of it. The universe knew that I was weak and incapable of detoxing from Instagram on my own, so it forced my hand, like the firm-but-loving entity it is. As I clutched my dripping-wet, completely unresponsive iPhone to my chest like it was my firstborn, I felt my body fill with a burning fervor usually reserved for religious zealots or those first in line at a Kylie Cosmetics pop-up. A greater force wanted to teach me something, I realized, and I was a willing and able disciple. I would give up Instagram, and I would break my addiction and learn a lot of things and write about my experience. As one of my favorite Arrested Development characters, Job, says when faced with a task no one had actually asked of him: challenge accepted.
I practically sprinted to the Apple store the second I returned to New York. As I lovingly cradled my brand-new baby, er, iPhone to my heart, I reminded myself of the promise I had made just two days before. I must be strong, I thought. Looking back, being phone-less that weekend hadn’t been nearly as excruciating as I would have predicted. If anything, it was refreshingly freeing. I didn’t have to scroll through my photos to see which one I should post to Insta Stories with the perfect caption. I didn’t have to decide whether to use VSCO or Huji to filter the photo I wanted to post to my feed. I didn’t have to check my story views to see if my ex and a slew of other random people I hadn’t talked to in months had watched. Instead, I was 100 percent present—and ended up experiencing one of the best, most memorable weekends I’ve had in a long time.
How an Instagram Detox Affected Me
The next morning, my alarm went off and I blearily grabbed my new phone to silence it. I blinked, and somehow in the seconds it had taken me to transition from dream world to reality, my thumb had tapped open the Instagram app. Horrified, I quickly swiped out and then spent the rest of the day keeping tabs on how many times I involuntarily went to open Instagram without even meaning to. I stopped counting after six. Though I would be the first to admit that I go on Instagram quite frequently, I had never realized just how much it had become such an automatic habit. I walked down the street after a lunch meeting, and suddenly, my thumb was hovering over the app like an invisible magnet had drawn it there. I took a break from emails at my desk, and the next thing I knew, that sunset-hued square was staring up at me. It was disturbing and somewhat depressing. Whatever happened to walking down the street and enjoying my surroundings? Why couldn’t I look out the window and take in the beauty of the New York sunset instead of watching yet another video of a baby cuddling with a puppy? (Those videos are cute as hell, though.)
"The brain, depending on what one is watching, or reading, goes into an autopilot mode. Transitioning from one activity to another is usually a challenge when engrossed but when reward centers and dopamine triggers are activated, it becomes harder to disengage. This is in great part why the brain can become so naturally inclined to check Instagram," explains Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC-based neuropsychologist.
As I grew more aware of my own addiction to the app, I also started noticing the hold it had over the people around me. On a trip to Long Beach, I was suddenly aware of how much of my conversation with my friends revolved around Instagram. “That’s a feed post for sure,” one friend said to another upon seeing a particularly flattering photo. “What should my caption be?” “He watched my stories.” “Will you AirDrop me those?” Instagram speak had infiltrated our vernacular, and I was all too guilty of it, too. Once, on the subway platform, waiting for the Q train, I looked around and saw a sea of people with their noses burrowed in their phones. Not a single person looked up. It was slightly eerie, like something that would happen in the 2013 dystopian novel The Circle (I was going to write Wall-E, but The Circle sounded more ominous and dramatic). I suddenly thought back to an Uber ride I took last year when my driver told me she met her husband 10 years ago because they made eye contact on the train and he started talking to her. Other than the fact that this seems like the start of a Nicholas Sparks novel, would they not be together right now if Instagram had existed back then? What if she had been too busy sending memes of Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin to her friends to look up and see her future husband standing in front of her?
Meet the Expert
Dr. Sanam Hafeez is an NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. She is also a member of Byrdie's Beauty & Wellness Review Board.
Benefits of an Instagram Detox
Now is probably the time to bring up that article I mentioned in the beginning. Researching addictive social media use is a growing field, with a slew of recent studies coming out with ominous claims. A 2017 study of university students found that those with a low level of social media addiction had a moderate life satisfaction, but that there was a “significant negative correlation” between students who had high levels of social media addiction and low life satisfaction. In other words, “the more the participants are addicted to social media, the less they are satisfied with life” (and that's pulled verbatim from the conclusion of the study). Another study found that addictive use of social media was associated with being young, female, and single (hi!) and related to higher narcissism and lower self-esteem (oh). It makes sense given the fact that Instagram offers a voyeuristic view into the lives of people who, at least on the surface, appear happier, prettier, and richer than you.
Anyone who’s emerged from a workout class feeling amazing, only to immediately have their self-esteem plummet the second they open Instagram and see a photo of a blogger’s chiseled abs in a bikini on a boat in Mykonos, will understand. Or, to bring it close to home, when I started writing this story, I suddenly realized my ex had unfollowed me and felt my chest constrict like I couldn’t breathe. My friends and I marvel at the fact that the things that happen on Instagram—likes, story views, follows, unfollows, DMs—aren’t real, in the sense that they aren’t actual real-life interactions, yet they often have the power to completely change our mood throughout any given moment of the day. Half of the time when we discuss our dating lives, Instagram is somehow involved. “I posted a selfie and he didn’t like it—he’s dead to me.” “He’s private—should I follow him?” “How come she viewed my most recent story but didn’t see the one before?” “Will you watch her story from your account and tell me what it is?” (Yes, this is something people do...or maybe just my friends.) Relationships are forged, strengthened, and broken on Instagram every day—and half the time, the other party isn’t even aware of it.
By the end of the week, I found that I no longer tapped into the app involuntarily (or at least, not nearly as much as I did in the beginning). A week free of Instagram forced me to be aware of my own reliance on it as well as the hold it had over the people around me. The bubble had burst, and I was staring into the ugly reality of the fact that I had let a social media app—and the false, warped world it presented—affect my mood, emotions, and well-being for far too long. Cutting it out of my life had given me clarity.
The Final Takeaway
I’d like to say that I’ve renounced Instagram for good and now spend my free time bettering my body and mind through, like, yoga or something, but the truth is, it wasn’t difficult to go back to checking it periodically throughout the day after my detox was over. But the difference is that I care less. As my friends avidly discussed the new question-answer box feature in our group chat, I found myself tuning out. When I took two photos I liked over the course of a weekend, I did the unthinkable and posted them one right after the other instead of spacing them apart for “engagement” purposes. Like any detox, my Instagram cleanse helped me to reset and put things in perspective. I try to use it for its positive traits—like allowing me to easily keep up with friends or for aesthetic inspiration—and denounce the negative side that involves comparing or letting digital interactions take hold of my daily life. It’s the best thing I could have done for myself, and the moment I find I’m getting sucked back in, I’ve already told myself I’ll gladly do it again. Here’s hoping it won’t take my phone dropping to the bottom of a river to start the next one.
The 10 most important things I learned from my Instagram detox:
- Interactions on Instagram are not real interactions.
- Just because someone “likes” your photo doesn’t mean they like you.
- No one is wondering why you haven’t posted a photo of your brunch.
- Friends in real-life are better than friends on Instagram.
- Giving up Instagram will allow you to spend your time doing way more life-enriching things, like watching The Incredibles 2 in theaters.
- More followers do not equal more happiness.
- A New York sunset during summer is often bright pink with tinges of purple and blue, and taking in all the beauty of it can sometimes make your heart hurt.
- Look outside next time you’re Ubering home.
- Make eye contact with everyone on the train—you never know if your soul mate is there!
- (That was a joke.) A hug from a friend will make you happier than 100 likes. A kiss is 1,000 times better than the most flirtatious DM. Look up, not down. Real-life is happening in front of you, and it's so much more exciting than a screen—no matter what filter you use.
Sahin C. The predictive level of social media addiction for life satisfaction: a study on university students. Turkish Online J Educ Technol. 2017:16(4):120-125.
Andreassen CS, Pallesen S, Griffiths MD. The relationship between addictive use of social media, narcissism, and self-esteem: findings from a large national survey. Addict Behav. 2017;64:287-293. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2016.03.006