I wish I could say that I gave up social media with some kind of flourish or ceremony. An inspirational post declaiming my decision to “live in the now, not the when”. A pensive shot of some flowers wilting gently in a vase. A final shout into the virtual void. At least that would suggest that I had some agency in the decision, that it was a positive choice made after weeks of careful soul-searching.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when the thought of opening Twitter or Facebook or, that most aspirational of platforms, Instagram began to fill me with a visceral, creeping dread. I think one morning I just woke up and couldn’t put myself through it anymore. The mental energy it took to quell the feelings of anxiety and self-loathing that followed each scrolling session didn’t seem worth it for the fleeting high of seeing a hedgehog wearing a miniature bow-tie, or an inspirational quote about Fri-yay (cue praise hands emoji!).
In some ways I can’t believe it’s taken me this long. Until recently I chose to present my life in glorious, cinematic Technicolor, cherry-picking only the best and most vivid snapshots to share with my online tribe. My digital palette is a little more muted these days. I think it’s fair to say that currently I paint with all the colours of the whinge.
But, quite frankly, it’s hard to muster the energy to take a smug couples selfie when you’re working to mend a damaged relationship. It feels pointless to post a picture of your #ootd when you haven’t had the money to go shopping for months and your clothes no longer fit like they used to. It’s difficult to celebrate the achievements of your peers, through re-tweets and shares and glowing reviews, when you feel like the pace of your own life is set to trudge rather than soar.
I can talk for hours to my friends about their hopes and dreams, their failures and successes. I can drink mugs of tea in their kitchens and kiss their brand-new babies and hold their hands while they cry. I can send letters, and postcards, and invitations. But watching the highlights reel unfold on their social media feeds? That feels considerably harder at the minute. And as the days, weeks and months go by without adding anything to my own virtual timeline, it feels like the edges of my identity are starting to fray. It’s the age-old philosophical question; if I didn’t post it on Instagram, did it even happen?
Although many would categorize Insta-envy as a purely narcissistic and millennial first-world problem, the statistics speak for themselves. Seemingly every week a study is published about the negative effects of social media on the self-esteem and well-being of users, particularly young women. At a time when, for many people, money is tight, time is precious and the pressure to live your best life is as insistent as the tide, it’s unsurprising that a relentless stream of #flawless moments could make even the strongest swimmer start to flounder. The commercialisation of the platform and the vast amounts that companies spend to create the perfect image has only exacerbated the problem, as users feel obliged to keep up with the high-quality content churned out by their favourite influencers (let’s not go into the pseudo-religious overtones of having legions of ‘followers’ hanging on your every post).
Not that I’m immune. Like an ex that you can’t help falling back into bed with after weeks of noble abstinence, I recently posted a particularly self-indulgent picture to Instagram. Although the warm rush of dopamine that came from the likes and comments buoyed my mood for an hour or two, I woke up the next day feeling strangely hollow.
Reader, it may come as no surprise to you that the I-am-completely-at-peace-with-my-life-choices expression on my face in this shot was deceptive. The days preceding and following that orchestrated moment were full of tears and disappointments and small, secret sorrows. Such is (real) life. So why did I perpetuate the myth of perfection? Why would I mislead my friends about the state of my mental health? Why is it so much harder to tell the truth than it is to draw a veil over the less flattering aspects of our lives, like a filter on a photo?
If someone you know has vanished from your social media landscape, don’t assume that they’re happily sipping on Oolong tea and writing gratitude lists in a blissful, ‘Gram-free haze. The girl who used to post those irritating photos of bae? Maybe she’s going through a break-up and can’t bear the deluge of mini-breaks, proposals and picture-perfect wedding days that constitute a standard Monday afternoon in Insta-land. The friend who was always taking mirror selfies of her “effortlessly thrown together” outfit? Maybe she’s lost her job and can’t quite keep up with the demands of the online persona she’s spent hours crafting. That guy who used to sassily live-tweet every single Bake Off episode? Maybe he’s just been hit with another crippling bout of depression.
Of course, it could be that they’ve just decided to throw off the shackles of our virtual overlords (I’m looking at you Mark Zuckerberg) and delete those ubiquitous apps for a few weeks of respite. But maybe check in with a message, just in case. If you want to be really analogue about it, send them a card. As for me, I’ll be continuing my on-off, love-hate relationship with social media for the foreseeable future. Or at least until I work up the courage to share the realities of my life in all of their unpolished, problematic, #nofilter glory.