This is Your Brain on Social Media
Social Media Brain Man Repeller-1

Three years ago, I logged into Facebook for the very last time. I clicked the “permanently delete” button, without uploading any of the memories stored therein to my computer. Right now, the only form of social media on my phone is Snapchat, on which I have a whopping fifteen friends.

I’m not going to tell you that you should do the same and delete most (or all) of your social media accounts. And I’m not going to preach to you about the merits of a temporary social media detox, although Kendall and Gigi did it, so draw your own conclusions. (Tongue, meet cheek). But for the sake of conversation, I will tell you how my social media abstention was received by others, and the clever arguments I’ve heard in favor of staying addicted. Because make no mistake, we’re addicted.

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When I deleted my Facebook, I’ll admit that the act of dissention was becoming a bit of a fad. I had plenty of friends who were “getting off of Facebook,” but I was one of the few who went the extra mile and permanently deleted it. The most common response to that was: (aghast) How will you stay in touch with people? How about your roommate during first year of college? Or that guy you made out with once at a frat party and are lowkey obsessed with but haven’t spoken to since 2011?

Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps by calling once in awhile? The truth of the matter is, the people I care about I speak to at least once in a couple of weeks on the rotary phone I keep right next to my [insert object reminiscent of prehistoric times]. If you replace this interaction with a social media stalk sesh, you might feel like you’re connecting, but are you?

Having access to the behind-the-scenes action of someone’s life has drawbacks. Mostly, these are related to how honest someone’s portrayal of his or her life is. Considering all the filtering and editing that goes on before something is live, this is a huge concern.

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As a society, we’ve become used to — if not resigned to — photoshopped and alien-like portrayals of the human body. What’s worrisome is that this aesthetic has bled onto our own personal expectations and presentations of self. So while we may be connecting with an old friend online or following a celebrity we admire, we’re often not engaging with the real person, but rather the online mask this person puts forward.

Whether we internalize it or not, this sets expectations. You may not think that all your friends getting engaged, having babies or going back to school is having an effect on you, but the fact that you’re even aware of this trend is bound to change the way you think of things. You may enjoy seeing photos of the travel-filled and seemingly luxurious lifestyles of some people on Instagram, but it’s only a matter of time before you start thinking: well, why can’t I have that?

That’s how the discontent starts — with the conflation of real-reality with a perfectly filtered social media-reality. But it doesn’t stop there. Soon enough, we start engaging in some of this behavior ourselves. We post only the flattering photos, highlights of our yearly vacation or snaps from a particularly fancy meal. When the likes start pouring in, it further confirms our suspicion that we have to portray this person all the time, and maybe that the real us isn’t pretty enough, funny enough or exciting enough.

We use our online profiles for self-affirmation. That is, our self worth and integrity are directly tied to our online pseudoselves. Social media, it turns out, isn’t just about others, but also about building our ideal self and surrounding it with others who support, or should I say “buy into,” that person.

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It doesn’t help that our reaction to the affirmation is actually chemical. Your brain releases dopamine every time you like, post or share something online. It’s the same response you get when someone gives you a hug or when you eat a delicious treat.

Is our addiction to the social media high unhealthy? It’s too soon to say. The only generation to grow up with the ever-presence of technology (Gen Z) has yet to hit adulthood; the implications of such a plugged-in upbringing will become evident in due time. The data is already worrisome, though: Teens and tweens spend about nine hours a day on media (umbrella term that includes all sorts of technology usage). Adults are spending just under two hours on their social media platforms alone.

It’s not surprising that some people are choosing to scale it back. Think of what you can accomplish with an extra two hours in your day. Putting time saved aside, getting off of social media (at least for me) meant fewer distractions and clutter. It left time to focus on myself, unencumbered by the lives of others. It’s been refreshing and liberating.

Have you logged off of social media? What was your experience, and would you recommend it? Sound off below!

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Photos by Krista Anna Lewis.

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  • Suzan

    Yes, I too deleted Facebook permanently a couple of years ago – and felt liberated! I have a very voyeuristic nature and simply couldn’t stop scrolling through the feed and clicking through to people I don’t even know. It started messing with my mind a bit, especially when in daily life I’d start taking photos for and thinking of fun stuff to say to post later on FB, ugh. And when indeed I’d spent hours scrolling and clicking (feels so ridiculous to admit this).

    A bit later I did start an Instagram account because I like to look at photos of/by friends, but keep my ‘to follow’ list super short and also throw out celebrities/cookblogs/other too perfectly curated content out regurarly. Because like you describe it starts too feel unhealthy when your (visual) input is too perfect all the time and sets the bar at a strange height.

    Logging off entirely on social media is not necessarily something I’d straight out recommend to everyone (even though the lack of FB gave me an embarrassingly big relief), it’s all about your habits. You feel like it affects your productivity? You feel deflated when you see the perfectly curated content? You get annoyed by the bullshit stories people post? You can’t sleep unless you scrolled through the end of all your feeds? Than yes, take a good look at your habits and set boundaries for yourself!

    If, like a lot of friends I have, you look at FB once a week, post something once a month, and couldn’t care less. Then no, no detox necessary I’d think. Unfortunately I belong to the earlier group…. So setting boundaries for myself it is 🙂

  • stephanie

    I’m in the process of applying to grad school right now and I decided to delete all social media for the year, at least until I submit my applications. Part of me was being ultra dramatic, hoping that people would reach out to me and confirm that they had noticed my cyber absence (is this the new faking your death to see who will mourn at your funeral?). Also, are you ever sitting at your computer and just automatically type in “F A, enter”? Yeah, frightening sign of being conditioned. But aside from my sociopathic games, I needed to take myself away from social media. I used to spend too much time worrying about what other people were doing with their lives; namely in a competitive manner. Every so often I find myself reminiscing on high school, wonder what my freshman year crush is up to, and become disappointed that I can’t do a quick fb search. But overall, I am so much happier, and I really have been able to commit time and energy to my applications. Oh, and only 3 people have reached out to me – HA! Jokes on me.

    • yeeeeears out of getting rid of facebook, when i type “f” on my browser, it still (!) automatically populates to facebook. My goal is for a different f to show up, then I’ll know I’ve won. But alas …there are no good f websites.

      • Thorhildur Asgeirsdóttir!

        • whaaaat is this impossibly chic website and why haven’t I heard about it before?!

    • Söngarin

      This is me. Haha. I do this to my Instagram for the sake of my mental health and I know I’m not alone in this. Because lbr seeing your friends posting photos of them having fun and eating fancy food can be a bit depressing at times when you’re constantly stuck in your room studying trying to ace exams. I sometimes even delete WhatsApp. My friends are annoyed with me for being like this but I don’t think they understand how overwhelming it can be at times to be constantly connected to social media and also try to do well in life/pretend everything’s fine. And so for my own sake I take time off every now and then. But I admit, I just can’t stay away from Twitter as I find it so informative. As long as I end up doing well in life, social media can take a backseat 🙂

  • dietcokehead

    I’m avoiding Facebook, but I still like Instagram. I don’t get FOMO from it — maybe I just don’t follow dicks, idk.

  • Caro A

    Whoooa, this is crazy, I took insta off my phone this morning because I’ve been feeling so crazy and not myself when I’m looking at it and beyond! Perf timing

    • Cristina

      OMG lets be real life friends haha. I frequently unfollow people that make me have a negative WTF reaction, when I don’t even know them. Like, strangers pictures actually make me angry. Ew, That can’t be healthy!

  • Shevaun

    I got completely off Facebook back in 2013, then signed up for a new one for Grad School because I was told by my colleagues that “Even a lame social-media presence is better than no social-media presence”. Unfortunately, my field appears to buy in really heavy to social-media as a job skill, so I freak out slightly whenever I see a job posting that says “Must have social-media skills”.

    That being said, I got rid of the Facebook again, because I couldn’t deal. Especially in the wake of Trump.

    I got rid of Instagram because it always made me feel bad about myself. I’m not good at differentiating reality from presentation, so I cut it off at the source.

    I have a professional twitter; don’t use it.

    I have tumblr, but I only follow artists, because I like art.

    And I have Snapchat, with literally 4 people on it. It’s the solution to “I don’t have Facebook but live far away from my cousin and her baby and still want to see da bab”.

    Not having it makes my brain feel more efficient. I obsess less, I don’t feel my thoughts devolve into circles as quickly, and I feel more focused. I think social-media is one of those things where in twenty years we’re going to be like “WOW why did we do any of that!”. Like how we currently view the decades-ago use of asbestos and lead-paint. We’ve been using something we don’t fully understand yet.

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  • Antoinette

    I deleted my Facebook a few years back and it was the best decision ever. I read the news on twitter, and hardly ever post anything on IG, except a few photos of my dogs, homemade iced teas or salads from my garden. This adds up to about three posts per year. I don’t have snap or WhatsApp. I have Pinterest but that never about socializing. The reasons I decided to limit my interactions with people on these platforms are plenty, but the most important is that I questioned the authenticity of the relationships I had in the virtual world. For all the connectedness, I noticed a lack of real connection. My conversations were mostly online even when I was in the presence of folks (everyone was on their phones and posting something they could have just said while expecting an online reply). I wanted to be present. I wanted people to be present with me. I wanted to talk without the distraction of devices and selfies and likes. So I lost a lot of acquaintances, because who has time for actually talking these days? I experience the moments of my life now, not thru the captured version of a photo (missing the moment although I was there), but simply because I was present and not distracted by taking photos and posting pics. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but if you waste time being in the virtual world, how much of the actual world are you experiencing?
    I have so much more time to read now. I don’t know every little thing that’s going on in everyones life which can be a lot to take in. I apologize for any mistakes in this piece. I had a loss this morning and this comment is a distraction from all the crying I’ve been doing (not looking for pity, I just don’t have the wherewithal to edit).

  • Kerrith McDowell

    Thanks for writing about this. I deactivated all of my social media when I started grad school to decrease distractions. It definitely worked, but the reality of my online “friendships” hit me a little hard when my first non-social media birthday rolled around and I went from 100+ well wishes, to a few texts. I always go back and forth about re-activating (sometimes feel like I might be missing out), but I feel so much healthier not having the compulsive urge to see what people are up to and then feeling bad if I’m stuck in the library studying while someone else is lying on the beach in The Caribbean. It’s also gotten me motivated to really work on the real friendships in my life.

  • _lauristia

    Just the article I needed to read, thank you! I deactivated facebook a couple of weeks ago, I have to say it’s amazing!

    When you use social media as often as they want to, you are giving them your soul, data as what you like to read, what you find funny and interesting, what you dislike, what places you like to eat, credit card info, what you often look for, where you work, where you live, interest in one person…. OMG star by looking a couple of times one profile and you get tagged, every single time you get into newsfeed you get news from THAT PERSON OF INTEREST.

    It’s like giving crack or cocaine to a drug addict!

    Haven’t used Twitter for 4 years
    Haven’t used Facebook or Instagram for 2 weeks (hope some more)
    Don’t have Snapchat

    Only Whatsapp.

    People who really matters in your life will keep in touch and those who doesn’t will dissapear, you won’t miss it.

  • Cristina

    Ahhhh the social media devil. I remember Facebook started my sophomore year of college. When my friend told me to get it I was like, “why do I need to have friends on there, I see my friends in real life”. It used to require a college email address to join. Then they let the moms in, then the teens and pre-teens. Now, any time I have done a Facebook detox, I tell my mom I’m off Facebook so please text/call me with real life updates and what do you know… I get an email saying “mom has shared this to your timeline” LIKE MOM I just told you I’m not on Facebook! Then I deal with other family that take Facebook communication as real life, and get offended that I don’t comment or like theirs posts (I’m talking adults over 40 here) and I just get embarrassed for them and it makes me angry.
    Instagram is my evil. Like whyyyyyyyy don’t all my pictures have perfect lighting and look like cute polaroids and whyyyy doesn’t my house look all white and bright with everything perfectly in please and whyyyyy do I actually really suck at taking photos? I would never actually admit to someone how much $$$ I’ve spent on VSCO filters, damn it. And I’m still not good.
    The real problem is.. how will I keep up with the happy hour deal? Or local festivals? Or new restaurants or my favorite store having a BOGO? I get serious FOMO there. Seriously, where else would I find that info?
    And if I kick it to the curb I get major anxiety because it really is an addiction. how long can social media stay relevant? Plus, the news is all one sided.
    I have up twitter a couple years ago and never looked back. Now it annoys me that people have to think of overly clever slogans in 40 characters.
    Ok. I’m done. Whew!

    • Hellbetty666

      It’s the events pages I miss the most. I’ve also been on a bit of a “find new bands” mission and I can’t keep track without following them on Facebook. But overall it has been A Good Thing, for me.

  • Jen

    I’m so glad you posted this article. I’ve had a minimal social media presence for a few years, mostly due to the fact that I had a job in media and was basically told that I needed to have a FB page, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

    Prior to that I had been on FB for a few years, became disgruntled, then simply deleted it all one day. I reupped with a bare bones profile that allowed me to collect friends, post nothing about myself, and cruise unlimited/contact other people on FB as if I were an actual, functioning member of the site. Just recently, I completely deactivated this faux profile and I have to say it’s relieved a lot of anxieties. I posted little about myself, but I realized I was becoming addicted to reading other people’s pages ALL THE DAMN TIME! Instead of living my own life, I was just reading about what other people were doing.

    Though some people may be able to peruse the filtered lives of their FB “friends,” blithely, I am not one of them. As someone who has struggled with anxiety/depression my whole life, I felt like FB just magnified those insecurities one hundred fold. I found myself constantly comparing my life to everyone else’s supposedly bliss-filled lives, even though the context of what was going on behind the scenes was not something I was necessarily privy to. Such rubbish. I would also find myself getting annoyed at conversations between people that seemed phony or out of character for a friend, but maybe in real life I would not have even known that conversation took place. It’s like there are definitely parts of people’s lives I don’t need to know all the details of.

    In any event, I probably won’t ever go back to FB under any circumstances. I can handle IG and Twitter in small doses, but I feel the twitch all the time to check the apps on my phone…just because.

  • I have been wondering about how much of my current discontent stems from what I see online. Indecision about what to do career wise, about where to live next, where to travel to…it’s not “inspiring”when I see other people’s perfectly filtered lives, most of the time it’s deflating and makes me feel like I’m not doing enough, successful enough, etc. And this is precisely why I love Man Repeller because when I read through this content, I feel so much less alone and less of a mess! XOXOXO

    • You are not alone. Studies have shown that people looking at others feeds and pictures get dissatisfied with their lives, where as looking at your own photos and feeds, you become happier. Whenever I’m alone for or offline for longer periods, I always feel more like myself and doing what makes me happy. SM can make me doubt that – especially linked in career wise. And that is why I use instagram, it makes me happy to go back and review my own feed.

  • I’ve deleted instagram on my phone so many times, every time because the endless scrolling in search of “inspiration” turned into even worse depressing state of mind. I always get it back because there is one really nice photo that I want to share. Now it’s on the last screen of my phone and I’ve unfollowed all accounts not by friends. Facebook I only access through the browser, and when I do end up there – the first thing that hits me is en empty feed – I’ve unfollowed everybody, and what a big relief. The best days are often those where you don’t have time and suddenly realize “oh, it’s been days since I last ‘checked in to any of these feeds”.
    The social media + never ending notification-dopamine conditioning of us, is almost making us less connected and worse at focusing and doing serious deep thoughtful work. Did you feel any difference within these two areas after the ‘permanent delete’?

    • I definitely did. The experience is perfectly equal to this saying: you can’t see your reflection in running water. The less “noise” I surround myself with, the more I’m able to “hear” and see who I am (vs. who I am under the influence of other people and pressures).

  • aitchilm

    Got off FB pretty much for the same reasons as everyone else. Now I’m addicted to IG and Twitter. Guess I need to say goodbye to them too. Will Disqus be just as bad? We’ll see.

    • I replaced them with something more constructive, and downloaded CNN and Flipboard. It was helpful (and more informative).

      • aitchilm

        Thanks. I have them too. Not sure if that’s any better as I checked them frequently for news and comments. I think taking the apps off of my phone is going to help my FOMO because that will make me take extra steps to get to them plus make me think about if I really need to go there.

  • Miss J

    I’m writing a book about how total strangers have become best friends through their dogs on Facebook. I’ve met several Facebook friends in real life, including one of my real-life best friends, and know many people who travel to physically meet people they’ve met on Facebook. It’s quite interesting when you have a whole bunch of adults using Facebook for something constructive rather than superficial-to give animals a voice, to organize fundraisers for dog shelters or to cover vet bills, and raise awareness in general, vs. look at me and/or my pet. Believe it or not, (and I’ve been researching this for over a year) the people that do this, in 90% of the cases are people that have great social lives, actual jobs and actual friends- in other words, people with very developed interpersonal skills. I use Facebook for the people I do not know in real life, so together, we can use Facebook in a positive, constructive, rather than self-indulgent way.

  • Hellbetty666

    I came off Facebook a couple,e of weeks ago for the very reasons you describe. And also, I felt… discontent with my life, and I couldn’t tell if it was just because I was looking at it through the filter of Facebook and other people’s lives. I was spending HOURS a day on there too, such a waste of time.

    And now? I feel mentally healthier. I really do miss keeping up to speed with the musicians and bands I love (as well as event pages for gigs). I also noticed when I went out recently, I wasn’t very good at small talk, but felt generally more articulate. But this was definitely the right call for me – I haven’t deleted my account yet, but I am fully prepared to, when I have saved all my good photos!

  • Leila

    Oh my gosh! Ok here i go. Im from Argentina so apologize me if my english get wrong. On december I logged out my Instagram account, was a very big prize,for me. The best option to star 2017, like you said ‘left time to focus on my self, unencumbered by the lives of others’ and is fucking true hahah. With that I found out a lot of Webs, man reppeller was one of those, i become a good reader triying not to use the translator. To conclude im so happy on my decision although I 20 years old. Was difficult because of course i had abstinence stage but i choose my happiness and my self peace than other thing. Please dont stop writting i love every word. Kisses y abrazos 🤗

  • Maren Douglas

    If you are like me and not ready to take the leap completely by deleting accounts you can turn off all push notifications from social media apps. I’ve found that by doing that I check them way less just because I’m not reminded to do so! Baby steps

  • Marianne R

    I feel like I don’t exist when I’m on Facebook. I can be really joyful and expressive irl around people I like, but I’m more of an introvert at heart and most of the time, the thought process of posting something on fb gives me anxiety. Whenever I do, I reach out to people I know irl to ask them to please like it to ease my fb fears but quite often my post disappears in some sort of social media black hole. I know it’s because of the algorithms they use and because I’m not very active on fb. But this just reinforces my feelings of non-existence.
    I think I might be more happy not going on Facebook, but I have to admit it has its perks as well. It’s a rather easy way to find flatmates for instance. Or a boyfriend. Ok that’s definitely more the exception than it is the rule but I met my last boyfriend through fb (we had friends in common, I added him). Even though it ended and left me brokenhearted, I don’t regret that experience which I have fb to thank for, sort of. I have developed reflexes when it comes to fb and breakup: the first thing I immediately did was unfollowing him and his friends. So yes, I am conditioned. And yes, I might be more happy not using fb but I would also miss out on certain experiences. So for now, I’m still on it. I’ll just try to not go on it every day and to not let it affect me negatively.

    • Dansin Bear

      You are going to find people on FB that do get mad at the stupidest things.

  • Jackie Homan

    After reading this article a couple days ago, I deleted Facebook off my Bookmarks Bar so that I actually have to type in the website when I want to go on it, and it has made a shockingly big difference for me…I used to click the FB button like 100 times a day just sitting on my laptop without even thinking about it, and now I’m so much more conscious of how often I go on it. I don’t think deleting it altogether is feasible for me, but this article definitely made me think about how much time I spend on it.

  • Anna B.

    I think Facebook is the easiest one to get rid of, for sure. I, too, have deleted all social media for the year (including my precious IG and Snapchat). It felt like a good time to do it with the election and just feeling very overwhelmed by the way of the world online. I was nervous, especially about IG and Snapchat because I kept up so much with my friend’s lives with those apps, but so far I don’t miss any of it. It’s funny when I run into friends who have had major life developments (moves, career changes, engagements, BABIES) that they’ve announced on social media, and I’m just like, “WHOA YOU HAVE A BABY!” lol but those people aren’t actually my close friends and now I think it’s weird how much I knew about their lives before. It also turns out that it’s rather therapeutic to not read Twitter during this particular political climate and my conservative family’s Facebook posts and constantly look at the glamorous pictures of my peers who are living fancier, cooler lives than I. I feel like I’m getting my imagination back, like I have all these ideas and wants that aren’t hemmed in by the trends and ideas I see on social media. 10 out of 10, would recommend.

  • Adrianna

    I deleted my FB after the election. I immediately realized I was reading more books. Not even because I had “more time” – (I was always a voracious reader) – but because I wasn’t reading the internet all day anymore. I wasn’t using up my mental energy or capacity for consuming content by reading social media content.

  • gdimu

    I just deactivated my Facebook account and deleted Instagram from my phone, I’ll keep it on my iPad since I do love Instagram but I know I can spend hours lost in there. I’m also working on keeping all electronics out of my bedroom, wish me luck! And good luck to all you you that wish to save themselves from social media.

  • Furaha Moye

    I agree, however, only in part. I think how you navigate on Facebook and how you are impacted by what you see and hear is directly relative to how comfortable you are in your own skin in the first place. If I were studying for my Masters or a PhD, I’m quite sure I’d delete FB as well; focus is key. I go on to remain politically active and to share thoughts with people I like/love who are as progressive as I am. It gives me a great sounding board, which I definitely need right now. I also have easy access to signing petitions. I guess at the end of the day there is good and bad in everything and you figure out what’s best for you and go with it.

    • Agreed, Furaha, and well said! I think setting boundaries for yourself and, more importantly, knowing yourself, helps you navigate everything in life better, including challenges brought about by social media. I guess what I was hoping this article would entice a discussion of is this: how will the ever-presence of social media impact a generation who grows up with it? You and I–having grown up in different times–are acquainted with an almost in-born balance that helps us veer away from seeing SM as a tool for self-actualization and validation. This is not a credit to us–it’s simply a byproduct of a different environment. But what about children who are spending more time (maybe most of their time) connecting online and through social media instead of in person? What will this do to the way they perceive themselves? People are so much crueler online, less filtered with their criticism–what does this do to a young person’s confidence? The way that social media highlights certain lives and “successes”–what will this do to what kids strive for and see as the ideal? Anyways–just a few thoughts. Thanks for weighing in!

      • Furaha Moye

        Excellent response Helena. I hope that you’re able to see this after 6 months. Life happened and I got sidetracked and had completely forgotten that I had signed on for Disqus. To your point on SM, I thoroughly appreciate your concerns for what this mechanism will do/is doing to the generations that follow us. There are of course, exceptions to everything in life; SM being no different. Living in NYC I have first hand views of how young people navigate through the day. It is amazing to me that so many of them are entirely predisposed to connecting on FB, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, to the point they’re actually walking down the street and not looking where they’re going because the text is the most important thing in the moment. I see them crossing the streets without first determining if it’s safe….dinner with four friends who are not visiting with each other but checking in on SM. And yes, the cruelty has spawned concerns relative to statistics on suicides by young people who’ve been shamed before their peers on social media. As great as this country is, the focus on our young people and their education has changed radically since the years we were in school. I am afraid for many of our youngsters, and I am also afraid for many of us as we morph into becoming elders. These are the people who will be at the gate and the sense of morals and ethics are totally opposite of what we understand. It is a serious quandary, this SM discussion. I remain hopeful that there are millions of parents out there who are asking the same questions as you and as a result are placing restrictions on what is acceptable and what is not.