“Are you sure you want to deactivate your account?”
Yes. I tapped the screen, and a second later my Instagram account ceased to exist. It wasn’t erased forever — I could log in again at any point and everything would be restored as it was — but as long as I stayed logged out, it was consigned to virtual purgatory.
I followed suit with the rest of my social media, disabling accounts where I could or simply deleting the apps off my phone. The occasion? I had decided that I would give up social media as part of my practice of Lent, a 40-day period of preparation for Easter that involves the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
I’ve given up social media for probably the last four or five years that I’ve observed Lent, but it’s a practice I think is worthwhile regardless of religious or spiritual background. In the last couple of years, I’ve started regularly taking breaks from social media anytime I feel like I have a strong “why.”
This spring, my “why” was a religious reason — the basic idea was that I would “fast” from my phone and use that time for prayer, but the same concept can be extended outside of this framework. For example, I sometimes find myself wanting to build up healthy habits like running or blocking out time to wind down for bed. When that’s the case, the easiest way to make time is by cutting out something else.
Last fall, I applied this idea to my academics. I noticed that I would get distracted while studying and end up spending more time doomscrolling than actually working. So I made a clean break with my social media. Disabling my accounts where possible, I purged my phone of social media apps and didn’t redownload them until I was through my last big wave of assignments that semester. I wasn’t magically more productive, but I could rest assured that I was carving out more time and sidelining distractions.
Behind each wish to “make time” for something else is a test of values. It’s not just that I want to make time to study — it’s that I care about school. Or maybe, if I’m being honest, it’s that I want to get my work done in time to go out with friends. At any rate, I’m not just cutting something out, but making room for something else that matters to me.
But in my experience, a “why” doesn’t have to be strictly about making time for a hobby or habit. A “why” can be more abstract. When I notice I’ve been dealing with a lot of social anxiety, for example, I might log off some of my social media accounts if I suspect they might be a factor. In this situation, my focus is more on how I’m feeling and less on how much time I’m gaining or losing.
Because social media can provide a point comparison about what’s happening in others’ lives, giving it up can feel like I’m giving up an opportunity to find things to do or reassure myself that I’m doing enough. It means deliberately embracing FOMO. However, the sense of security I feel like I’m giving up is almost always a false one — scrolling quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns and turns into an endless feedback loop of self-comparison that never fully satisfies.
When I make it past the initial discomfort, I find my fears disappearing. Comparing my life to the highlight reels of others proves an impossible task when I can’t see them — I’m denying my mind the shaky evidence it needs to spout false narratives about my self-worth. Meanwhile, I find myself investing more of my energy in the people directly around me and I end up blissfully forgetting about what may or may not be happening on Instagram. Funny enough, when I stop myself from seeing what I might miss out on, I end up not feeling that I’m missing out.
Even past the beginning stages, however, deleting social media isn’t without its challenges. When I’m offline, it can be very difficult to know what’s going on outside of my immediate experience, which comes with some very real downsides. What do I do when most of my news comes from Twitter and I only keep up with that one friend from high school through Snapchat?
Embracing these challenges, however, has proven to be a learning experience. Each time I delete social media for an extended period of time, my relationship with it evolves. For me, perhaps the most important piece of this evolution has been learning to divorce the virtual from the tangible. Though my accounts undoubtedly reflect some piece of me, I don’t feel that they are a piece of me. As it turns out, I’ve become less and less attached to social media with each break.
Through this process, I’ve learned a lot about how to be intentional with my use of social media. Now when I post on Instagram, for example, I might ask myself questions like “Am I putting this out there to prove something? To whom?” By embracing careful intentionality with my social media use, I’ve come to believe that some moments are best shared only in the memories of those who have lived them. Consequently, I’ve put less pressure on myself about how I present my most public-facing profiles.
Going offline temporarily has even brought some long-term changes. Deleting social media has taught me what I do and don’t miss about it. For example, I deleted Snapchat a year ago and discovered that I didn’t really enjoy it that much to begin with. For me, it wasn’t an integral part of the relationships that I most valued.
My close friends didn’t care that I wasn’t keeping up a streak with daily blurry selfies, and the other people I sent daily blurry selfies to didn’t care that I stopped. The same was true of stories — I didn’t really care to view the ones from people I barely knew in real life, and I often had the pleasure of sharing experiences with the people I most cared to keep up with.
When it came to long-distance friendships, on the other hand, I had to be intentional about reaching out over text, FaceTime or snail mail. I didn’t see what they were posting, but my absence proved to be an invitation to actively seek out life updates and not passively observe them. In the end, I realized that my engagement with Snapchat wasn’t doing all that much to help my relationships flourish. So just like that, I decided to make the temporary change a permanent one.
Still, there are apps and accounts I keep coming back to for what I think are good reasons. I love that Instagram, for example, lets me reach out to old friends whose numbers may have changed and stay in the loop about things like University sports and concerts from my favorite artists. As a true Gen Z kid, I rarely touch Facebook, but it’s handy for things like reaching out to relatives and finding questionable but cheap furniture for my college house.
There’s a lot of debate about the merits and pitfalls of social media, and I’m not here to join one side or the other. I will say, however, that in my experience it’s worth giving up for a while, even if you decide to hop back on. Social media is a versatile tool — taking a step back for a while may just provide the perspective needed to use it wisely.
Alex Pawlica is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.