“I would never.”
“I’d consider, but probably not.”
“That’s not happening.”
“I mean…maybe for a day or two.”
These are just a few of the responses students gave when asked if they would consider deleting social media off of their phones. However, my roommates and friends Maddy Allen, Lilly Blumenthal, and Sarah Minster, all sophomore girls, were brave enough to take on the experiment together. Each one deleted their three most used social media applications—Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook— for one week, beginning on October 7. The three participants each voiced their feelings about not having social media for a week. This experiment was limited in scope due to the participants’ demographic similarities, and therefore is not representative or applicable to any given person’s experience.
The one experience that all participants shared was a feeling of surprise at realizing just how much they used social media apps as a substitute for thought. When reflecting on her automatic impulse to click on Instagram every time she opened up her phone, Allen observed that “social media has been a constant in my life since my teen and even preteen years, so it’s kind of a force of habit. I never really thought about it until it wasn’t there and then I was like ‘what do I click on?’”
Blumenthal came across this same feeling of “what now?” when opening up her phone in spare moments throughout her day, and discussed how the absence of these apps actually changed how she went about her day-to-day life. “Everyday when I woke up, I would immediately go to Instagram and mindlessly scroll. Without it, I started to read the news in the morning.” This compulsive checking of social media each morning indicates an intrinsic need we have for our minds to constantly be preoccupied.
According to the Pew Research Center, of the 95 percent of teens who report they have at least one form of social media, 45 percent say they are online on a near-constant basis. Minster stressed that when there’s nothing else to do for a couple of minutes in your day, social media provides the ideal space to have entertainment spoon fed to you with one quick click.
Participants also realized that cutting out social media in turn reduced overall time on their phones. With their newest iOS update, Apple itself has introduced a new feature called Screen Time, which automatically monitors the amount of time spent on your phone, how much certain apps are used, and how many times you pick up your phone during the day. The update arose in response to criticism stemming from substantial research about the negative effects excessive screen-time can have, especially on teenagers. The introduction of screen time tools to limit the time users spend on certain apps is part of a greater push by tech companies to create new digital wellness features that mitigate the ways personal devices are engineered to be addictive.
All three participants commented on the fact that it seems slightly counterintuitive that tech companies responsible for these pervasive habits are simultaneously offering tools to alleviate their use. Tufts Sociology Professor Margaret McGladrey reiterated this point, noting that “critical self-awareness of our social media use habits is particularly important when we consider that social media platforms are designed and owned by commercial companies with the primary goal of monetizing our attention for advertisers.”
The reduction in daily screen times led to noticeable changes for Allen, Blumenthal, and Minster. “I started using my senses more,” Blumenthal noted with excitement. “When I had a spare moment, I would use that time to think and reflect or maybe touch a leaf while I’m on a walk. I was no longer walking with my head in my phone.”
Additionally, Allen reflected on why she believes she and many other college students feel tied to social media. “It is validating putting something out there and getting likes and comments,” Allen said. “As much as we say we don’t need it, we enjoy it. Not having that there anymore, I began to wonder: why do we feel the need to post?”
Extensive psychological research has revealed that the reason why our screens and social media can be so addicting comes from the excess release of dopamine, sometimes called the “feel good” hormone, that is triggered when we see a new post or get a reaction to ours. This hormonal reaction stimulates the same regions of the brain that cause cravings and addictions to all kinds of things—drugs, gambling, and scrolling alike.
While none of the participants felt they have ever let social media control their lives, or that they had ever been addicted to it, cutting it out entirely allowed them to reflect on the impact social media has on their thoughts and interactions. All three expressed increased fulfillment in their daily lives, as they felt they were having more genuine conversations with their peers and were freed from major platforms that lead to constant comparisons and feelings of dissatisfaction with their lives.
Blumenthal talked in-depth about the “overall feeling of inadequacy” she feels when scrolling through her Instagram feed. “You think everyone has a more fulfilling life than your own, especially since I follow people from a lot of different schools, there’s this resting feeling of ‘what if?’”
Instagram especially fosters a large gap between the real and the ideal. It perpetuates already existing feelings of insecurity that the “grass is always greener on the other side” and an experience of “FOMO”—fear-of-missing-out. “You’re not supposed to be happy all the time, but social media makes you feel like you should be,” Blumenthal said.
McGladrey emphasized the importance of understanding how social media “intensifies the ways that humans always have enforced cultural expectations, which can heighten the emotional costs of not feeling as though we live up to others’ expectations of us, both in terms of appearance and achievements.”
While removing this source of external validation and comparison from their lives proved productive for the three participants, each one eventually re-downloaded the apps. However, they also shared their plans to actively pursue a new approach to their social media platforms.
Although Minster has felt at times that she has relied too heavily on Instagram for validation, she maintains that overall, social media has had positive impact on her life, due to the connections it can create and the platform it gives her to find and share content she is interested in. “I’m not going to discount it forever,” she insisted. “I like to see what other people are up to and see art, but I plan to be more intentional about it.”
Moving forward, each participant mentioned their plans to take more agency with what they choose to look at when they use social media. Each one chose to follow body positivity accounts, in addition to art and nature accounts, instead of some other accounts that they feel reinforce negative societal expectations.
One critical takeaway from this small experiment is the importance of mindfulness in our use of social media. Although some companies have made it easier to monitor phone usage, it is still up to the individual to find their own balance. As McGladrey says, “being aware and critical of the ways that we interact with new communication platforms allows us to use social media rather than social media using us.”