I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say I’m slightly addicted to social media. Sure, I have to be on it during the day for work, but does that explain my compulsion to scroll through Instagram Stories as “entertainment” while I brush my teeth every night? Or to refresh my Twitter app before getting on the subway to ensure I have reading material for every minute of my commute? Probably not.
That being said, my affinity for social media pales in comparison to that of many teenagers today. Unlike my fellow millennials and me, members of Generation Z didn’t just adapt to life with social media; they were born into it. It’s as much a part of how they communicate as the word “hello” — the lens (or screen, rather) through which they see the world.
Given the magnitude of this status quo, it takes a particular kind of courage to chart a different path. What’s it like to be young and offline? I asked three teenagers who don’t use social media about why they made that decision, how they stuck to it and what impact it’s had on their lives. Read what they said below.
Nora is a 19-year-old from Washington, D.C.
I had Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter my freshman year of high school, but eventually I felt like it wasn’t really healthy, you know? For one thing, social media is a lot of work. With Instagram, you have to be good at taking pictures, filtering them and posting them. You have to worry about getting followers, getting likes, things like that.
We’re taught to think that these platforms are for us. That they’re a public service. That they make our lives easier and more efficient. That no one could properly communicate without them. But social media companies are profiting enormously off of everyone buying into that narrative, which is why these platforms are actually designed to be addictive. They’re not benevolent.
We live in a late-stage capitalist society, so we’re constantly surrounded by marketing and advertising. This environment has a huge impact on young people navigating social media. We’re taught to market ourselves just like we see things marketed to us. I think it’s really harmful to treat yourself like a commodity, but that’s what people do. We’re shaped by the world around us, and the world around us is not healthy. It’s kind of sad, but I think that’s the reality.
I’m not really tempted to start using social media again. It’s all about documenting the world instead of living in it, and I think that’s a big reason why so many people struggle with mindfulness. The first week of college, I would go to parties and boys would ask, “What’s your Snapchat?” If that’s what you’re most interested in, then I’m probably not interested in you.
Social media can be especially dangerous for young women. It places so much emphasis on the importance of appearances, which encourages competition between girls and reinforces harmful beauty standards. Most social media platforms are vehicles for comparison, not solidarity.
Abby is an 18-year-old from Lafayette, Tennessee.
Freshman year of high school, I had a friend who would delete her apps whenever she was stressed so she could focus on her school work. I thought that was cool. I’d never even thought of doing that, even though Instagram made me anxious. I spent way too much time on it. Whenever I heard people talk about how many followers they had or how many likes they got, it stressed me out. I was embarrassed I didn’t have a ton of likes on everything I posted.
I eventually decided to try deleting my account. When I did, I was so surprised by how much more free time I had to focus on other stuff. I had friends who had never finished a whole book, but I started reading tons, and I’ve kept it up. I like that I’m not constantly on my phone. In the movie theater the other day, all my friends were glued to their phones, and I was like, “Chill, we’re watching a movie.”
The only downside of not having social media is that I live in a small town, and a lot of people my age know each other from Instagram and stuff. I feel like I don’t know as many people sometimes. Whenever I tell someone I don’t have Instagram, they’re usually like, “Why?” They think it’s weird. I feel like people take it way too seriously.
If you’re considering quitting but aren’t sure, start by taking a break from it. It doesn’t have to be forever. Just try it and see what else is out there.
Hillel is a 19-year-old from South Bend, Indiana.
I used to have Snapchat and Instagram, but I stopped using those around the end of my sophomore year of high school. I realized I was fixated with watching other people’s Stories and that it was not a very healthy habit because I would often compare myself, like: “Oh, this is what so-and-so is doing right now. I feel really terrible because 1) I am not doing that thing, or 2) They’re doing it without me and I feel excluded.”
I came to terms with the fact that I would probably be happier if I wasn’t compulsively checking my phone 24/7 to see what other people were up to. I needed to live in the moment. I needed to stop stressing about things, like with Instagram: “When should I post? How many likes should I get?” Sometimes it seemed as if the amount of likes I got was a barometer for self-worth, which I know is not true whatsoever. Comparing yourself to other people is not a very good thing to do. In order to live a more fulfilling life, you shouldn’t focus on what other people are doing.
Quitting social media wasn’t as jarring a transition as I thought it would be. I cut back gradually, so when I finally did delete my accounts, people weren’t really that shocked. I’m fortunate that I’ve had a consistent group of friends for the past few years, so I haven’t necessarily needed to use social media to branch out and meet new people. But since I’m a senior this year in high school and I go off to college next year, I think it will be interesting to see how not having social media impacts me in my next stage of life. I think that it will be very different from my experience in high school.
I don’t think I want to rejoin before I start college, though. It’s not like all my grievances with social media will suddenly disappear just because I’m at a different school. If anything, rejoining would probably make the transition even worse. I don’t need to feel like I’m the same as everyone else. What I do need is to feel comfortable with myself and who I am.
I feel exponentially more confident in myself now that I don’t use social media. I feel free to embrace all the different facets of my personality. Social media does people a disservice because it makes you take all the complexities of who you are as a human being and flatten them into a two-dimensional image that you think represents you the best. The truth is, we’re so much more complex than that.
It also has a tendency to just gloss over people’s lives, like: “Oh we’re perfect. We’re having a great time.” There are so many more things happening beneath the surface. I love not having to streamline my image so it fits inside the box of a pre-specified Instagram aesthetic. I can just be.
Collages by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.