Before Christmas, I could feel the accumulation of my media usage throughout the year finally adding up. It was as though I'd hit my content quota for the year and suddenly felt deluged by the sea of media I was swimming in. I got terribly overwhelmed by being on Instagram, specifically, in the final days of 2022. Almost immediately, I felt the need to purge the app from my iPhone. So I did, figuring that the best way to spend the end of the year was to abandon the app and give my brain a break.
This wasn't the first time I needed space from the ever-churning content I inconspicuously consume. It wasn't the first time I deleted Instagram from my phone, either. For at least four years, I've been in a cycle of overusing the platform, trying to create some distance, then yearning for digital content and finally returning to the app -- with the (fragile) resolution that I would have a healthier relationship with it this time around.
We're all aware of the dangers spending too much time on social media can pose, but recent research is making the problems even clearer. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its bi-annual Youth Risk Behavioral Survey (PDF) in February that reported that 57% of teen girls experience persistent sadness or hopelessness, a jump from 36% in 2011.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt dug into how the widespread use of social media, specifically Instagram, has played a significant role in the mental health epidemic in teen girls and how studies that claim the impact is simply correlational -- not causational, which he believes it to be and illustrates through analysis of social media studies in his Substack, After Babel -- are getting the prognosis wrong.
"By 2015, it was becoming normal for 12-year-old girls to spend hours each day taking selfies, editing selfies, and posting them for friends, enemies, and strangers to comment on, while also spending hours each day scrolling through photos of other girls and fabulously wealthy female celebrities with (seemingly) vastly superior bodies and lives," Haidt writes in his Substack. "The hours girls spent each day on Instagram were taken from sleep, exercise, and time with friends and family. What did we think would happen to them?"
Did social media open my circle of friends and allow me to further explore my interests when I was 15 and constantly on Instagram? Yes. Did I find some of my best friends on the app in college? Also yes. Has the app's prevalence in my life made it better? As I look back at my adolescence, I can't say it has. Has it made it worse? I don't know.
What is for certain, though, is that Instagram, when it's on my phone, is like an annoying friend that won't stop bothering you. It keeps requesting you to interact, to share details of your life, to be seen by your followers for that sweet, sweet dopamine rush even when you aren't in the mood. You are incentivized to publicly live your life on the app, and while there are advantages to building and cultivating a robust online community, some things don't always need to be shared.
Sharing everything online can end up abstracting you from your closest friends and family by providing loved ones with a depersonalized form of communication. Instead of sharing a photo of a dinner you made with your mom, you can post it on the app. Yes, your mom will probably still see it, but so will that guy you went on one awkward date with in 2019, and that girl who cuts your hair.
So, I needed a break to repair my relationship with my friends and loved ones, and distance myself from the digital world, if only for a few weeks. Knowing that I had trouble keeping away from Instagram for a substantial amount of time when I went cold turkey in the past, I decided to try something different.
This time, instead of fully abandoning the app, my plan was to spend less time with Instagram than I had been (which I estimate was one to two hours a day, amounting rather disgustingly to hundreds of hours per year). To set a limit, I put the app out of reach -- much like you might place a bag of chocolate chips higher in the cupboard to reduce snacking temptation. I deleted the app from my phone but kept it on my laptop, making it harder to access.
The 'browser loophole'
Someone without social media dependency issues could be fine with simply deleting the app from their phone. However, whenever I attempted a break from Instagram, I would abstain successfully for a few days, and then I would start relying on what I like to call the "browser loophole" -- that is, accessing Instagram not through the app but through my web browser. This defeats the purpose of removing Instagram from my phone, but at the moment it felt sensical and like it wasn't cheating. Allow me to reiterate: I have problems!
Putting Instagram just out of reach
So how did I close the browser loophole? Fortunately, a few days before deleting the app from my phone, I read a CNET article on clearing your iPhone cache. The article notes how clearing your cache can free up storage, which is initially why I did it. But then I realized deleting cookies and website data could also delete account information kept by your browser. If I wanted to create an additional hurdle to reaching Instagram, I could clear the app data so that I'd have to retype my username and password each time. That way, when I was lured into accessing Instagram through my browser, having to enter my account information to log back in gave me time to reflect on a possible defeat I wasn't quite ready for.
Why the browser version of Instagram helps me reduce my Instagram use
Along with my scheme to make Instagram harder to reach, the browser version on my laptop is clunkier than the mobile version, which serves as another deterrent to prolonged use. For example, posting content on the web version is possible but takes a bit more work than on the mobile version.
So far, my plan is working. After nearly two months with this setup, the urge to reflexively check Instagram on my phone is gone. Now, I access it a few times a day through my laptop, absorb the updates from my favorite recipe developers and meme accounts, and then shut my computer and do something else.
The immediate accessibility of social media apps and the instant gratification they provide is a major reason my relationship with them has become overly dependent. I often fall into the trap of Instagram and other apps because they're logistically easy on my phone, and once I'm there, everything I could ever desire is available to me -- the mesmerizing meal videos, the memes about whatever mess Harry Styles is in. Not to mention the rush of validation I get from posting and interacting with others on the app.
As I've written before, expecting young people to abandon their social media accounts is unrealistic. Our generation was raised on digital affirmation, immersed in online communities and trained to be informed on everything happening. My new approach, I think, is more realistic.
I have no intention of a permanent exit or complete detox. But, thanks to this switch, I spend only a handful of minutes a day visiting Instagram, which is way healthier than waking up to it, checking it during any crumb of downtime during the workday, swiping through it on the subway or pulling it out during social gatherings like I did when it was readily accessible.
Why it works
It's possible to stay connected with your friends, family or favorite meme accounts but want to reduce your reliance on social media apps and your addiction to these platforms. By creating a few simple barriers, you can fundamentally change your habits.
Will I ever download the Instagram mobile app again? Maybe. But for the time being, this works. And if you need to take a step back from social media, maybe it will work for you, too.