Why I want to quit social media
And why I can't
I’ve spent the last week and a half thinking about phones and computers. Specifically my phone and my computer. And the things I actively seek out on their respective screens. And the things I don’t seek out but absorb anyway. And the various whys.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my intention to set myself up for "vacation success” by taking a break from social media. I was excited about my social media fast and I pretty much knew I’d love it and I was right.
But I didn’t write this essay immediately upon my return to social media (and non-vacation life) because I’ve been trying to ascertain the answers to these questions.
What precisely do I love about being off social media, and what precisely do I hate about being back on?
In January 2021, I had a first grader and second grader (both of whom were “virtually learning”) and a one-and-a-half year old, all three of whom were stuck at home with two parents who were also stuck at home. It sucked! I was acutely aware that neither of my older kids were getting their social-emotional needs met, and also acutely aware that Brett and I’s decision to prioritize the mental health of the family unit as a whole would negatively impact the kids’ “academic progress.” And by this I mean, we didn’t enforce homework because we had no energy to take on any additional battles. We didn’t play number games with them. We didn’t do sight-word practice. We were too tired. And so were the kids. I don’t blame myself for any decisions I made during school-closure times, but that doesn’t mean I was comfortable with my unavoidable and inescapable failures as a parent and a person. It’s strange to know that you’re fucking up on a regular basis but while also fully understanding that you’ve been placed in a situation where not fucking up is impossible (motherhood in America anyone?)
In addition to my painful awareness that I was never meant to be an educator of small children who also happen be my children, I felt constantly overstimulated. Someone was always talking, either to me or at me or in my vicinity. Someone was always sharing something. Someone was always needing something, and that something was often ME. My patience, my time, my attention, my answers, my body (see also Amanda Montei’s piece on being “touched out” as a mom).
Always noise. Always input. Always demands for output. The only meaningful “break” in this cacophony of being was during the baby’s nap, when the big kids would do “movie time” and I would retreat to my bedroom upstairs to do whatever. Sometimes I’d try to write but more often than not, I listened to a podcast about Anne Boleyn and knitted a small sweater. Sometimes I fell asleep. Sometimes I did a crossword puzzle. Anything that would mentally and psychically remove me from my here and now, which was pulsing with stimulation.
In January 2021, I tweeted about the phenomenon of being trapped in a cycle of input and output vis a vis childcare (and educational work and domestic work and external work and and and and). I wasn’t alone in feeling desperately burnt out.
The reason I evoke these Dark Times is because I’ve gradually realized that my propensity towards overstimulation IRL (which is triggered by physical bodies, sounds, and movements) is akin to my propensity towards overstimulation online (which is triggered by other people’s opinions, views, hot takes, prescriptions).
I am sensitive. I am thin-skinned. I am a people pleaser. I am an earnest try-er. I crave feeling understood more than almost anything else.****** When I say or do something that is meant to land in one particular way and it is perceived in another way, a dull, heavy, pit roots itself in my gut and I must expend significant time, energy, and will to release it. I am the person incessantly texting friends for confirmation that x and y sounds ok and that x and y doesn’t make me seem _____. Why I spent my early twenties as an actor and why I ultimately became a writer (two professions rife with rejection and external noise) I can’t say for sure, but here we are!
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Here’s what I’ve noticed about how I use social media, and how these usages impact my emotional wellbeing.
I use it for professional networking, to stay abreast of current events, and to be an engaged, informed literary citizen.
This involves scrolling through my peers’ stories and posts and spending time crafting responses, comments, and shares. I feel pressure to be on top of shit because I fear if I’m not on top of shit (whatever that means in our capitalist cult of productivity), professional opportunities and networking opportunities will elude me and my work will become irrelevant and I’ll fade away into obscurity and be forced to reckon with the fact that I’m a hack. In addition to feeling this amorphous pressure, sometimes the input of other peoples’ experiences elicits negative feelings (shame, inadequacy, jealousy, envy), and sometimes it elicits positive feelings (inspiration, vicarious joy, pride, excitement, community).
In any case, it makes me feel feelings.
I also use social media for research purposes.
This means I scroll through white nationalist momfluencers’ feeds, I scroll through activist momfluencers’ feeds, I scroll through beachy-waved McMansion momfluencers’ feeds, I scroll through homesteading momfluencers’ feeds, I scroll through anti-sunscreen momfluencers’ feeds, I scroll through hippie island momfluencers’ feeds. Sometimes this input of other people’s experiences elicits negative feelings (horror, rage, despair, hopelessness, frustration, exhaustion), and sometimes it elicits positive feelings (curiosity, energy, hope, inspiration, community, validation).
In any case, it makes me feel feelings.
Sometimes I don’t use social media for any deliberate reason at all.
Sometimes I scroll and click and tap unthinkingly and unconsciously through my one wild and precious life. Still sipping my first cup of tea at 7:03 AM, I’ll click on one person’s story which will make me feel weird about something so I’ll click on another person’s story in attempts to feel better and that story will reference another person’s post which will make me feel insecure that I don’t know enough about ___ and that post will link to another post which will link to an online shop stocked with vintage copper measuring cups and suddenly my kids will be squawking that we have to go to camp in 5 minutes and I’m instantly rage-y because I’ve become overstimulated online and now am overstimulated IRL through no one’s fault but my own. An hour is lost and my day feel frantic and it’s only 8:03AM.
Feelings are felt.
I use social media to view a friend’s vacation photos because I miss that friend.
It takes 30 seconds. I feel nothing complicated or fraught whatsoever! I’m happy to see the beautiful photos of people I love in beautiful places. I can’t wait to hear about the trip once they’re back. As far as I can tell, this usage of social media—checking out a friend’s pretty pictures of a castle—is the only usage that is unlikely to plunge me into a potential maelstrom of FEELINGS. This is interesting to me!
Also interesting to me is what I don’t use social media for.
I no longer actively seek out aspirational accounts for inspiration (decor, food, representations of motherhood, fashion, beauty, whatever). I used to! As a new mom, I was really attracted to pretty moms in their pretty worlds mostly because I needed others’ performances of motherhood to inform my own, still shapeless sense of maternal identity. I think the reason I no longer seek this type of content is twofold. After studying it for the past 3ish years, it no longer feels like entertainment (too wrapped up in “work”), and as a mother who has officially been mothering for a decade (my oldest recently turned 10!!), my own maternal ideals, standards, and values are pretty well cemented.
I rarely turn to social media for prescriptive anything - parenting advice, health advice, wellness advice, snowshoeing advice, whatever. For better or worse, google is my drug of choice for this type of thing.
The easiest way to sum up why I love being off social media is that my world feels more immediate and more manageable. I still feel feelings (obviously) but I’m swimming in a pond of potential feeling triggers versus a fucking ocean.
I am able to experience myself (and the people and things around me) with more clarity. Do I still get overstimulated by life? Of course! But I’m infinitely more capable of managing IRL overstimulation when I’m not simultaneously responding to the stimuli of social media. I feel more grounded, my brain feels less chaotic, and I’m far more likely to view the various rises and falls I experience throughout the day with at least a modicum of perspective. If the kids are fighting over who gets to use a fucking glass cup and the glass cup is thrown into the air and subsequently shatters, am I stressed and annoyed? OF COURSE. But if I’m not also feeling stressed or annoyed about that post or what someone commented on that what I commented on that post or the internet rabbit hole that post sent me plummeting down, the kid fight and the broken glass are less likely to be the straw that breaks this camel’s back.
When I was off social media (for two beautiful weeks), I felt a little less connected to current events, sure. But I was happily surprised at how my various newsletter and media subscriptions kept me culturally and socially engaged in a way that didn’t trigger that same cycle of overstimulation as social media does (for me at least). Reading something written by someone whose perspective you enjoy, value, trust, and respect doesn’t carry with it that same potential for emotional upset as an hour on social media might. Even if you start a session on Instagram or Twitter with firm intentions to get in and get out for very specific reasons, both apps are designed to keep you scrolling for as long as possible, so good intentions are sometimes (often!) not enough. Reading about news and culture in a newsletter or even in a physical copy of New York Magazine (for example) ALSO releases me from the pressure to weigh in. And that’s pretty great, because guess what? I don’t have something insightful or worthy or clever to say about every (or most) things!
Many professions require a certain level of social media participation. In the publishing industry, writers (especially nonfiction writers) are expected to sell themselves in order to sell their work. The larger and more engaged their social media followings, the better, because followers and clicks can (sometimes, theoretically) translate to book sales. The labor of self-promotion and constantly sharing a curated version of myself online does not come naturally or easily for me despite loving/craving/needing connection with people (readers, other writers, fellow humans, etc). There’s the time/energy suck in creating a consistent, brand-able, online persona PLUS the time/energy suck in absorbing and making sense of everyone else’s online personas.
In a recent interview with Mira Ptacin for LitHub, Courtney Maum said this in response to Courtney’s question about what is required of writers:
Far too much! That writers should be involved in the promotion of their work to some extent seems natural—after all, we want to form connections with the readers who are going to buy our books and with the outlets that they are going to buy our books from. Today, it’s not only hoped for but almost a condition of getting a book deal that you will become a one-person branding operation for your book, pulling a podcast out of your back pocket, a newsletter, blue check verified social media accounts with gazillions of followers, a TikTok dance account, maybe a cooking show, the list goes on.
It’s a lot! And I know writers are not alone in needing to utilize their social media accounts for the purposes of career advancement. It’s just one example of how opting out of social media altogether has real-world consequences and implications. Would I happily delete Twitter and Instagram if I felt I could retain my social and cultural currency as a writer? 100%. Do I think that’s feasible or even advisable? Not really.
When I was reporting Momfluenced, time and time again, I encountered expert advice about being thoughtful, curious, and reflective about how engagement with social media in general and momfluencer culture in particular impacts one personally. What triggers me on social media might not trigger someone else. We all contain multitudes; we all contain multitudinous triggers! And while I am 100% a work in progress in my desire to live an engaged, informed life while also protecting myself from social media overstimulation, I believe taking careful stock of one’s wellbeing in relation to social media is critical to not being entirely subsumed by others’ voices.
I believe in pausing to locate one’s own voice amidst the virtual din.
What does this mean for me? Maybe it means not launching myself into online choruses before I’ve fully caffeinated and moved my body. Maybe it means not responding to something upsetting until I’ve had an hour away from whatever showed up on whichever screen. Maybe it means talking to my therapist more. Maybe it means planning social media posts in advance so they feel less tied to the Real (soft-bellied) Me and more tethered to the Work Me (who, because she’s not the Real Me, should theoretically be less bothered by the Real Me’s Real Feelings).
I don’t know. I’ll keep thinking about it. I’ll keep changing my mind. I’ll keep reaching various epiphanies that will work for a month until they don’t. I’ll keep searching. I’ll keep trying.
In the meantime, here is a beautiful photo of a vacation sunset which I was very happy to experience IRL unburdened by the nagging thought that I should share it on social media to demonstrate my appreciation for pretty clouds.
And here’s a picture of me feeling free.
*******I have never heard someone express the uniquely guttural, visceral, chaotic hell of feeling one’s core self is misunderstood (or the attendant desperation to express one’s core self until WHOEVER fully understands!) more beautifully or honestly than Jacqueline Novak did on this episode of Poog (one of my favorite pods of all time).