Instagram and I had a toxic relationship. It started innocently enough. when I joined in late 2016, thinking it would be a fun way to connect with other runners, CrossFitters, book lovers, writers, and the odd friend or family member. I thought I might find writing, speaking, and run coaching clients on Instagram, too. I thought it was going to be fabulous, and it was… at first.
But it quickly got out of hand. I found myself mindlessly watching videos or looking at pictures that Instagram had thoughtfully curated just for me. I’d be reorganizing my closet, then I’d be searching #blackcardigan (maybe there was some interesting way to wear a black cardigan with which I was previously unacquainted and therefore I should not give the black cardigan I never wear to Goodwill??). And #blackcardigan was just the beginning. Twenty minutes later, I’d be drowning in random people’s random ass feeds looking at random stuff that was less important than just about every other thing I could possibly be doing at that moment.
If I was waiting for a pot of water to boil? Just gonna see what’s happening in my Instagram feed. Stuck at a red light? Tap that Instagram icon. And if I’d recently posted… forget it. I’d stop brushing my teeth for a quick second to see if anyone had liked it in the last 48 seconds.
I tried to change my habit but was never successful. When I considered getting off Instagram altogether I told myself I couldn’t because I needed it for work. But the fact is, I’ve never gotten work through social media.
Meanwhile, Instagram was robbing me of my precious time and attention.
And it wasn’t just Instagram; it was my whole phone. And maybe it wasn’t Instagram or my phone. Maybe it was me. Although I’m inclined to think it wasn’t. It is well-established in the medical literature that our brains are wired to become addicted to the random rewards we get from our phones (e.g. unpredictable likes, texts, comments, etc).
In any event, I knew something needed to change. First, I got a flip phone.
Once I had my flip phone, my iPhone became my mini-tablet; something I use it when I’m on Wi-fi, but I can literally take it or leave it. I have been finding it very peaceful to go places without it or to simply turn it off anytime I don’t want to be distracted. (I still get What’s App and Voxer notifications on it because the fact is, typing out a text message on a flip phone is a bitch, and I also find it hard to resist the impulse to check email on it. Mostly I use it for apps like My Fitness Pal and Spotify and as a camera).
Though I have Instagram on my iPhone, I logged out when I got my flip phone and I have yet to log in. The first time I considered logging back in, I thought “Instagram has taken up waaay too much of my time and I hate how I feel after I’ve been on there for too long. I think I’ll wait another day to log in.” The next day, I thought the same thing. The third day, I thought, “It’s been a couple of days. What if I waited a week?” The following week I was camping in Montana with no W-Fi so the point was moot. When I returned from Montana I realized I felt better without Instagram in my life. At this point it has been almost a month since the Montana trip and I hardly think about Instagram anymore.
That said, I’ve given some thought to what my life has been like without it and here’s what I’ve come up with.
Things I miss about Instagram
-My friend Kelly’s feed
She is an excellent photographer. When I see her photos, I’m not only impressed by their beauty, but I also see a kindred spirit and I send her a mental high five. Kelly and I went to occupational therapy school together and have since traded our scrubs for artistic pursuits. I love seeing what she’s creating and (selfishly) feel validated when I see another fomer OT using her creativity to make art.
-My sister’s feed
She’s not on Facebook and she’s one of the few people I know IRL who I follow on Instagram. Even if she’s posting photos of what she ate for lunch or photos of her kids (aka things I would find boring on almost anyone else’s feed), I’m enthralled by the details of her life. You might think I get enough of the details based on the amount of time we spend on the phone together but it’s never enough, considering we live thousands of miles away from each other. Plus, her kids have some of my DNA, which makes them part mine, so how could I not want to see pics of them. #psychoauntie. I also miss coming up with inside joke hashtags when I comment on her posts.
Things I don’t miss about Instagram
There will always be more in my Instagram feed than I can keep up with and there will never be anything I need to know right now, or really ever. And yet. The scrolling. It was like some outside force would attach itself to my thumb and despite every rational thought in my brain— This is unimportant. This is probably photoshopped to death. My kids are trying to talk to me. I should be emptying the dishwasher. Dinner is not going to make itself. PAM , WHAT ARE YOU STILL DOING ON INSTAGRAM!? — I couldn’t stop.
Instagram is, at first glance, an easy escape. You can be in your own messy kitchen surounded by whiny children and a sink full of dishes while your mind is on the runs, the squats, the yoga flows, or the coconut cream pies that come up in your feed.
But that “escape” doesn’t offer the same mental break as a soak in the tub, or a few stolen deep breaths in your bedroom. Instead of giving our minds time to be still, to think, or just wander, it floods them with information. There is a reason people say their best ideas come to them in the shower or on a run. We need time and space to let ideas and experiences marinate in our brains before we can create new ones. This isn’t new age nonsense, it’s science.
Not only that but this so-called “escape” fueled my anxiety. Looking at everyone else’s life (e.g. the life they chose to share online) often made me wonder about my own life. Even if my questions were fleeting, lasting only the fraction of a second until I scrolled down to the next post, they were there. Should I be doing that workout? Should I be wearing those shorts? What if my house was that clean? How is her forehead so perfectly blank? Should I get Botox? Maybe facial acupuncture? What if I had abs like that? What if I had a writing space like that? Each of these questions carried so little weight on their own, but their cumulative effect was heavier than I realized until I stopped feeding them entirely (no pun intended). Again, this experience is not uniquely mine. Science has shown a positive relationship between smartphone use and anxiety.
Hashtagging my life
Being on Instgram meant that anytime I saw something beautiful, did something interesting, or ordered a craft cocktail, I felt the urge to post it. If I felt like posting it, I would momentarily check out of the actual experience to take a photo, find the right filter, compose a caption, and of course attach the perfect hashtag or 20.
If I didn’t decide to post it, I was nevertheless momentarily checked out of the actual experience as I asked myself whether I really wanted to share it, if I could even capture the beauty in a photo, or if posting it might annoy or offend the person with whom I was sharing the experience. Posting selfies also made me overly self-conscious of my wonky eye (e.g. the residual effect of Bell’s Palsy).
And then there were the running posts. Before Instagram I never took my phone on a run. It was one of the only times I’d ever fully unplug. Running means lots of things to me, but one of the most important is that it’s a time to just be. Stopping to take a photo (not just a photo but the “right” photo, optimally one that I am actually in, let’s not even talk about the gymnastics that requires) is my anti-running.
There is no contest. I prefer being (more) present in my own life and (trying to) stay focused on my own pursuits over checking on everyone else and hoping they like my feed.