I have an Instagram problem.
I'm not sure when it was that I knew this to be the case. It probably dawned on me somewhat recently, when I actually began paying attention to my iPhone's Screen Time insights -- and saw that I was not only starting to average more than five hours of screen time every day, but most of it was spent using Instagram.
At first, I tried and failed to quit Instagram cold turkey. But when that didn't work (not for long, anyway) and I noticed the number of minutes I spent on the app each day gradually increasing, I thought to myself, "Maybe I just need a break."
And for a full two days, that's exactly what I did.
The 48-Hour Instagram Cleanse
The Experiment's Background
It wasn't just my failure to quit Instagram cold turkey that motivated this "cleanse." It was also -- after several months of working to establish a mindfulness and meditation practice -- observations of my own emotions after using social media. They were especially concentrated while or after using Instagram, to which I often refer as "my drug of choice."
Not only was I checking Instagram compulsively -- Did anyone new like my post? Did anyone new view my Story? Did anyone else vote on my stupid poll about holiday songs? -- but I was also noticing a pattern of feeling, well, less-than-great after using the app for only a few minutes. Whether it was sadness or just general stress and tension, Instagram was actually making me feel worse, or at least generating very little semblance of fun.
That occurred to me after I listened to a guided meditation on the topic of FOMO, which stands for "fear of missing out."
As Google defines it, FOMO is an "anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website."
So maybe that's what could explain the resulting negative emotions after spending time on Instagram. Perhaps it wasn't a direct cause-and-effect, but the correlation could at least be partially explained by my own sense of FOMO, especially when it came to the issue of Likes.
As is the case with many other Instagram users, I observed at the time, I would get a small sense of glee when people Like my posts -- until jealousy started creeping in. "Why does this friend of mine like our mutual friend's photo, but not mine?"
At the time, I also wrote a bit about how this idea of FOMO and Like-envy aligns with the psychology of Instagram, citing an article from Harvard University about the connection between dopamine production and social media notifications.
Dopamine, the story explains, "is a chemical produced by our brains that ... gets released when we take a bite of delicious food [and] when we have successful social interactions." In other words, it's a chemical that makes us experience a sense of reward.
Source: Harvard University
But when we engage in these reward-inducing behaviors enough, explains the article's author, Harvard Medical School's Department of Neurobiology research technician Trevor Haynes, we begin to become addicted to them -- and expect a sense of reward when we perform them. And one of those behaviors, it turns out, is checking social media.
Forty-eight hours might not seem like much -- but psychology, it seemed, was not on my side.
The Experiment's Setup
The holidays seemed like a perfect time to step away from social media. It was an ideal time to focus on my dog, my family, and several plates of cookies -- which I expected would make it easier to keep my phone at bay.
The schedule would go as such: as of midnight on Christmas Eve, I would log out of the three social media apps I use the most -- Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter -- on both my phone and desktop. (To help with the latter, I installed a Chrome extension that would block these sites on my browser.)
As for my phone, the apps had to be completely deleted by the Christmas Eve deadline.
I also established some rules:
- This would not be a complete digital detox. I still wanted to use my phone to take pictures and wish friends a happy holiday via phone calls and texts.
- I was still allowed to use YouTube, because, listen -- the holidays are stressful, and sometimes, you have to search for a video of piglets befriending kittens.
- Also in keeping with the holidays, I allowed a loophole for inevitable questions from relatives about how to use social media apps for different things. As long as it wasn't my own social media accounts being used, the occasional troubleshooting or brief tutorial was allowed.
No Lack of Screen Time
I had high hopes for my 48-hour experiment/cleanse. I expected the time that I usually spend using social media to be replaced with such analog activities as reading, going outside, or chatting with friends and family in person.
And while I did spend a bit more time than usual doing most of those things, I noticed myself filling the "bored time" that I'd normally occupy with social media with other screen activity -- like playing a game or looking at pictures on my phone.
At the same time, however, I noticed other screen habits took a back seat. When I was out walking my dog and felt the compulsion to photograph something that intrigued me along the way, I paused -- realizing that, much of the time, I take pictures not to capture memories, as much as I do to share them on Instagram.
I paused -- realizing that, much of the time, I take pictures not to capture memories as much as I do to share them on Instagram.
Soon, I replaced that compulsion to share things on Instagram with a more mindful habit, and instead of taking a photo, I would stop to observe whatever it was that I was hoping to capture digitally.
That habit-breaking practice extended beyond picture-taking. I also observed that I was generally checking my phone less or leaving it in another room during these 48 hours of no Instagram. Whenever I felt the impulse to "check in," I remembered the apps that typically generate the most notifications had been deleted, and that there was nothing to check as a result.
That made it easier to step away -- and, according to my iPhone's Screen Time insights, resulted in me spending 9% less time than usual on my device.
It wasn't a huge decrease in screen time, but combined with some of the other observations I made during my Instagram cleanse, it was enough to make me wonder if it's something I should do regularly.
That was especially true when, by the end of day one of this experiment, I realized that my FOMO was starting to fade away. The more often I stopped myself from wanting to habitually "check in" on Instagram, the less I wondered about what everyone else was doing and, instead, focused more on the present moment.
Of course, given my rule about wishing friends and family a happy holiday via text and phone, I was able to use my phone to check in with loved ones. And I was able to do so without mindlessly scrolling through picturesque, square-shaped, joyous moments being shared by 600+ people online, most of whom I barely even know.
The more often I stopped myself from wanting to habitually "check in" on Instagram, the less I wondered about what everyone else was doing and, instead, focused more on the present moment ... without mindlessly scrolling through picturesque, square-shaped, joyous moments shared by 600+ people online, most of whom I barely even know.
That observation of fading FOMO -- the one that perhaps was the most salient out of everything I took away from these 48 Instagram-less hours -- was also the most quickly reversed out the experiment's impacts.
Within a matter of minutes after re-installing and using Instagram again, I noticed that I was starting to feel ... awful. I saw posts from people I was trying to mentally avoid, and was suddenly mindlessly scrolling, once again, through the same FOMO-inducing content that I had forgotten about during my two days away.
Suddenly, I felt like maybe my own holiday paled in comparison to all of the photogenic memories appearing in my feed, or that I should have shared my own -- all thoughts that, upon reporting on this experience, seem silly on the surface, but might actually occur to many social media users.
To keep these observations in check, I shared them with Adam Alter, an NYU Stern associate professor of marketing and author of the book Irresistible, which explores technology addiction and the businesses behind it. Was it normal, I asked him, for me to feel so awful, so soon after resuming use of Instagram?
"That sounds right," Alter suggested. "You’re being flooded by the best 1% of all moments experienced by the people you follow, which is enough to make you question the quality of your own time."
It reminded me of something that Alter touched on in the Social Media & Screen Addiction Masterclass that he created for Calm, a meditation and mindfulness app: the Attention Restoration Theory, which projects that spending time in nature can serve as an "antidote," as he calls it, to many of the observed negative impacts of overdosing on social media and screen time.
"The basic idea here is that the more time you spend in nature when you're exhausted or fatigued," Alter explains in the lesson, "the more likely you are to restore whatever resources have been depleted by living in the modern world."
I tested this theory post-cleanse by pausing my Instagram scrolling to take my dog for an hour-long walk along the beach, where I tried my best not to check my phone, and instead focus on the present moment in the same mindful way I did during my cleanse. It may have worked, as I noticed about halfway through the walk that my shoulders felt less tense, and I couldn't even remember what it was that had been bothering me so much.
Is it possible, I asked Alter, that something as seemingly simple as going for an hourlong walk when you don't check your phone (or social media, at least) can actually have any significant counter-effect on the impact of too much screen time?
"Sure," Alter told me. "Nature has a replenishing effect, so even a small chunk of time outdoors tends to make most people feel somewhat restored."
After going Instagram-free for 48 hours and sharing my observations with Alter, it became clear that the way I approach and think about social media needs to change.
Should I try to quit Instagram completely again? Probably not, says Alter. "I think it’s impossible for most of us to go cold turkey on tech, and I’m not sure we’d want to even if we could."
Instead, he says, "The better plan is to carve out tech-free periods each day when we spend time with loved ones, friends, and in natural environments wherever possible."
"I think it’s impossible for most of us to go cold turkey on tech, and I’m not sure we’d want to even if we could. The better plan is to carve out tech-free periods each day when we spend time with loved ones, friends, and in natural environments wherever possible."
- Adam Alter, author of Irresistible
And for many of us -- myself included -- that behavior modification seems to be easier said than done. It's a lovely idea in theory, but when it comes to maintaining it, things can get tricky. So what are some ways to keep this practice and approach to screen time in check, to rewire healthier habits for the long-term?
"Check in with yourself to see if there is an emotion you’re avoiding feeling by keeping your mind and hands occupied," suggests Dr. Laurie Paul, a psychologist in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. "Put down the phone, close your eyes, and breathe for a few moments -- then use your mind to scan your body for signs of tension, pain, discomfort, restlessness, heat, cold, et cetera."
The purpose of an exercise like that one, Dr. Paul explains, is to confront and acknowledge the emotions that we might be avoiding through the compulsive use or checking of apps like Instagram -- behavior than can only aggravate those negative sensations.
"Check in with yourself to see if there is an emotion you’re avoiding feeling by keeping your mind and hands occupied."
- Dr. Laurie Paul, psychologist
"Anxiety can be manifested in compulsive behavior like being glued to Instagram," Dr. Paul says. That sheds some light on the benefits of the exercise above: to identify preexisting emotions that can become exacerbated by social media.
"If you can let yourself feel and think through the primary emotion, this can take the air out of it and give you a sense of relief," Dr. Paul suggests. "You may leave the exercise feeling more grounded and with less of a need to be on Instagram."
So for those who are hoping to curb their use of social media, or at least their screen-time-mindsets, the best approach, it seems, boils down to a single action: Pause.
Pause to ask why you're still scrolling, what you may have been feeling before scrolling, and what else you can be doing with that time. And start small, gradually practicing and observing this activity in a way that builds healthier social media habits over time. After all, Alter says, "A detox that doesn’t have an effect beyond 48 hours doesn’t have much benefit; what’s more important is how your behavior shifts in the longer term."
But if you'll excuse me -- I have a dog and a plate of leftover holiday cookies that need my attention.
Featured image source: Calm