Young people are anxious and depressed because of their use of Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms. Are they better off without them?
When we met each other at Max’s Sandwich Shop, Martín Sánchez, an 18-year-old student, noticed how I have my phone in greyscale mode.
We instantly connected because of this little detail. He showed me his phone. From the outside, it was a typical iPhone X. But instead of using the four-or-six digit passcode to access to it, he logged in using a 35 digit one. He explained why: so that he is much less reliant on looking at his phone. His home screen, a dark blue background, consisted only of three applications: WhatsApp, Spotify and Headspace.
The reason for this is his awareness of how having a smartphone with Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and many more social media applications in our pockets can affect our state of mind. He considers social media “manipulative” because they keep us on the loop on purpose. That’s why he decided, in January of this year, to quit them entirely.
He may be right.
According to a recent study by Science Direct, more than 210 million people worldwide are addicted to social media and the internet.
Another 2023 survey made by stem4 indicates that 97% of children as young as 12 are now on social media. Almost 70% of them said that social media makes them feel “stressed, anxious and depressed”.
The Cybersmile Foundation revealed in their 2022 study that 89% of social media users believed it is damaging towards their mental health, with a particular focus on issues such as the pressure to be perfect all the time, body image issues, bad news addiction, losing quality of sleep and increased anxiety.
For Enrique, a 27-year-old agricultural manager currently living in Mexico, leaving social media was essential. Before 2018, he could spend “hours and hours” stalking people on the internet.
“I liked Facebook a lot because you could gossip about other people’s lives. That was very cool to me, because you could go way back and understand how people’s development process was, how they have transformed, so I could spend a lot of time stalking people, but at the time I didn’t think it was damaging.”
His anxiety issues grew, however, when his snooping tendencies were used to track down his former-partner’s whereabouts. “The thing that truly made me want to quit socials was my former relationship, because it was one with a lot of infidelities and lies. Because I perceived that, and that he was talking to a lot of people, I began stalking my ex’s accounts to see the likes and chats he had with other men.”
This mistrust, as well as the constant chasing around, was damaging towards his “self-trust and trust in others.” He says he was “very unhappy” at this moment in his life.
For Martín, being active on social media was also life-shattering.
The Fine Art student has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which makes him lose focus easily. He describes his period inside social media as an “abusive cycle” in which his mental health was shattered and he lost his ability to “control impulses.” He says that, even if he logged on to Instagram or Snapchat for five minutes, “those minutes of content echo,” affected him throughout the day.
As a consequence of stress from these digital lands, he developed sleep problems. Then he missed three of his five college applications. His father used to manage his time, but Martín felt ready to face those challenges himself. However, the fact that he was hooked on social media made him forget about the applications’ deadlines.
Moreover, he faced anxiety and self-doubt because of the ideals those platforms sold to him, in terms of how he should be, or how he should behave.
The 18-year-old’s time on Instagram made him feel unlovable and insecure, particularly towards what he calls “an impossible masculinity.” As a cisgender man, he felt his feelings were “worthless, and they were not worth to be shared by anyone.”
Another consequence of his scrolling state of mind were the “toxic” views his feed portrayed about women, as if they were something to be “controlled and subjugated.” Looking back, it was an “insanely lonely place” where he felt he couldn’t reach out to his male friends because “they were in that same indoctrination.”
Martín was also isolated from his true identity. Inside Instagram, he fabricated “an entirely fake personality,” where he would question his mannerisms, his thoughts, and everything about himself.
“I didn’t let myself think. I don’t think anyone should have that power over something as intimate and as essential as your thoughts. And for me it did. For many, many years.”
Avantika Pathania’s case is no different. The 23-year-old MA student considers her relationship with social media “a love and hate relationship,” she says. “When you’re constantly on these apps you feel drained. It requires a lot of your energy and your senses.” For her, social media apps are “very addictive.”
One thing that leaves her feeling isolated and left out is her conscious decision to not use Instagram. “If I had a penny for every time a person has asked me to join Instagram, I would be rich,” she says. The reasoning behind Pathania feeling this way is because of past experiences and her own insecurities: “Sometimes I wish I had something to show to the world.”
For her, social media is triggering towards her mental health, because it gives her body image issues, as well as damaging thoughts towards her economical and professional status in comparison with others.
“I see pictures and just think ‘I can never look like that’, ‘I can never be like that’, ‘I can never visit this place’, but at the same time I want to know what’s happening.”
Even though she’s well aware of how fabricated Instagram images can be to make everyone look like “models or influencers”, she still gets sucked in the illusion that everyone’s better than her.
While she still uses LinkedIn and Pinterest, she has coping mechanisms to get her Pinterest feed “as clean as she can.” Whenever the 23-year-old sees posts that damage her, she feels “disgusted”, rants about it with her close friends and deletes the app, not reopening it for a while.
With LinkedIn, she started using the app for professional gain, but she finds the platform to be just another tool of comparison. The notions of superiority that people give off deeply affect her emotional wellbeing: “Not only are you not good looking, not only are you not wealthy, you’re not academically smart either. So where do you go? Where do you hide? Sometimes I feel like ‘Am I even worth living?’”
So how does the other side feel? Does being outside of these digital realms make them feel any better?
For Enrique, being off of social media was all he needed to get his life back on track. He describes the moment in 2018, when he left these platforms for good, as blissful: “I felt much happier. I felt calmer, I slept better, and I had more time to do what interested me.”
Ever since his decision to disconnect, Enrique feels he is much more present for the people that matter in his life rather than looking at Instagram stories and “seeing other people, visiting other places and doing other things. It disconnects you from where you are,” he says. This outlook leaves you with “a sense of emptiness.”
Martín agrees with Enrique’s sentiment. Whenever he looked at his platforms, right before quitting, he “felt empty and sad, because it was lying to me.”
The way Martín truly got out of his toxic social media cycle was the love of his girlfriend. Being loved, heard and seen for who he truly was, broke the “illusion of social media.” This was four months before he quit all of his platforms except WhatsApp. He no longer required the validation of likes, comments and shares when a real connection knocked on his door. He felt he could be back in control: “my life’s mine, period.”
For Avantika, not having social media platforms doesn’t necessarily make her feel good, but it doesn’t damage her more, either. She is aware her insecurities and depressive issues would skyrocket if she was on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and similar accounts.
She believes that society is deeply affected by the social media culture, having to prove to their audiences (and themselves) that life is perfect and every moment is remarkable: “Everyone has this need to prove that they are something, that they have something.”
So is it possible to have a healthy relationship with social media? Or is quitting the only way towards a peaceful existence? Maybe all it takes is getting rid of the smartphone entirely.
Liam Campbell, a 21-year-old student, had Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and WhatsApp on his phone, constantly buzzing with notifications.
After research on how there were no clear benefits of having a smartphone (and only damages at that), he switched from an iPhone X to a Nokia 1650 with only “basic functions.” He also deleted TikTok and Snapchat, since he considered both of those applications “highly addictive” – in the worst of days, he would spend “six or seven hours” on them.
Because of his interest in minimalism, what started off as an experiment became his new routine. Liam left his smartphone on January 30, 2023 to find out what it felt like “to be a real person in a real world.”
After a while, his worldview completely changed. He is “a lot calmer and more relaxed,” as well as “much more observant, and present.” He is now more focused, productive, and doing other things like reading books while riding the tube, or being more “intentional” with the music he listens to.
While he does not think he had severe issues from his constant use of Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat, he believes that being out of them upgraded his mental health. He now finds purpose in everything he does.
“Getting up in the morning and not looking at a screen, or before going to bed, that period of time where you’re ‘just there’, it makes you be a little bit more human.” Another healthy side effect to this change is how secure he feels in his friendships: “If they’re not calling you, they really don’t want to hang out with you.”
Even though he’s not completely off of social media, his time on them has significantly reduced. Before, he spent an hour and a half on Instagram every day. Nowadays, he only uses it for “10 to 20 minutes a day,” to check his messages. He stays on Instagram because of the networking opportunities it brings, as well as the ability to share his own content.
Alex Soto, a psychologist focused on addictions, agrees that moderation is key to a healthy relationship with digital communities. He explains that, on a biological level, being addicted to social media is no different than being addicted to smoking or drinking. “Tobacco and alcohol activate the brain’s pleasure centre, and there are certain behaviours that activate those same pleasure centres,” he says.
According to Soto, there are three signs to know that you’ve become a social media junkie: compulsion (not being able to stop consuming them), knowing the purpose of using them and spending a lot of time on them and/or “preparing themselves to bring and receive information from those platforms”, and wasting their time there instead of doing other activities. He mentions that someone with social media addiction would likely have their lives “totally focused on satisfying something in these platforms.”
Soto says it’s “very common” for Gen Z and Millennials to depend on social media without realising it. “We are the generation most in-debt. The generation that takes the most medications and that are studied the most. But we are also the generation that aspires to obtain a certain lifestyle, and to be able to show that lifestyle, even if the consequences are that we cannot sustain it.”
He reiterates that Facebook and Instagram, particularly, “show us as more successful than we are, and if we don’t show it, we feel like losers,” he says.
“It’s inevitable for someone who has Instagram to compare themselves to other people that they follow,” and that comparison affects “self-image, the lifestyle that we want, the concept that we have of ourselves and our aspirations and expectations.” The collateral effects can have “unmeasured economical, emotional and mental costs.”
Soto thinks that it is possible to have a moderate consumption of these platforms, because you can activate certain “regulation mechanisms” to control the addiction.
Though it’s important to acknowledge when you can’t hold back. If you’re starting to feel hooked by these applications, it is important to limit the hours you spend in them, observe the profiles you follow and why, see how much your life has changed since you started following certain people, and “have a conscious analysis of why you spend so much time in social circles that don’t exist.”
Finally, he encourages seeking professional help if you notice that social media is gravely affecting your life. “Always, when there’s any type of addiction, it’s only the tip of the iceberg of the problems people face.”
During the end of our conversation at Max’s Sandwich Shop, Martín said he would be willing to add Instagram back into his life. He wants do the best he can to stay off social media, yet he’s being realistic about it.
Being an artist, Instagram is the platform where his friends at uni, and thousands of creators, share and showcase their content. That’s why he has a backup plan: in case things don’t go his way, he’d buy a cheap phone, without any applications, and log on to Instagram for 30 minutes a week.
“Other than that, I would keep it in a cage.” He wants to fight against having to have social media again, and he hopes to be “creative and savvy enough” to never need them.
Featured image by Prateek Katyal via Unsplash CC