What I Learned from a Month Off Instagram (and two months back on again)

written November 2022

In August, I deleted Instagram and Facebook for an entire month.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, sparked mostly by a discussion led by Ashlee Gadd in her Instagram stories. It turns out a lot of people were feeling the same way about Instagram: frustrated, burnt out, mentally exhausted from near-constant input. Some of us questioned whether we even wanted to be on social media at all anymore; all of us agreed we didn’t want to engage with these apps the way the algorithm was prompting us to.

This conversation happened to take place at the end of July. After several days of discussion, Ashlee told us she always takes the month of August off Instagram, and would we like to join her? Just to see how it went?

So I did.

Here’s what happened.

What I learned

1. My brain felt quieter

Within a matter of days after I stopped scrolling Instagram reels, my mind quieted down. I was able to focus better, to think more deeply about things that actually matter to me.

Was this a surprising outcome? Not really. I knew that constantly consuming short-term content erodes our ability to focus. But I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which that was true in my own life. I didn’t realize how weak my ability to focus had grown until it started to come back.

2. I didn’t miss it–like, at all.

This one surprised me. I expected I’d feel a certain amount of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), or that I’d miss keeping up with my favorite accounts. I was actually counting on it; I planned to use my list of whose updates I had missed to help me pare down what accounts I followed after I rejoined social media.

To my surprise, I didn’t miss anything. At all.

Honestly, I didn’t even remember the accounts I usually think of as “favorites” until a family member who also follows them mentioned them. Once I was reminded of their existence, I remembered that I do enjoy following those accounts. But did I actually miss anything? No.

3. There were still distractions.

I kept the Pinterest app on my phone, ostensibly to help me with my preparations for my baby. I ended up using it just to scroll.

The uncomfortable thing about deleting most of my social media apps is that it forced me to recognize that the root of my problem is not the app; it’s my own behavior, and perhaps in a larger sense the way I choose to think about my life. If I’m using social media to distract myself from my reality, deleting the apps won’t solve that underlying issue; I’ll just find something else to distract myself, whether it be a different app or a TV show or something else entirely.

Healthy social media habits go beyond just deleting the app for a weekend, or a month, or even a year. They require getting honest with myself about why I’ve developed those unhealthy habits in the first place. That’s the most important part, and also the hardest to actually do.

What happened next

For the first half of my month off Instagram and Facebook, I didn’t put too much effort into replacing my social media habit with something more beneficial. Near the end of the month, though, I really doubled down on spending my time more wisely. (Not coincidentally, this shift coincided with the increase in energy I experienced after I started taking iron supplements, which I very much needed.) I stopped scrolling Pinterest; I was busy with more important things. I started reading before bed. I stopped putting on TV shows in the background while I worked; I wanted to be fully present in what I was doing.

I had intended to re-enter social media on the 1st of September. The 1st of September came and went. But I found myself reluctant to re-download the apps. My mind, and even my home, felt quieter, more restful. I didn’t really want to hear the opinions of a bunch of people I don’t even know. I wanted to stay focused on the things I am called to do.

Eventually, I re-downloaded my social media apps. And for the first week or so, I hardly went on them at all. I was too focused on my offline life to care that much about what was happening online. For a while, I grew hopeful that perhaps my month without social media had fundamentally reset my relationship with the apps for good!

But, of course, it didn’t.

First, it was hard to stay off the apps when everyone around me was on them. When you sit among a group of people who are all on their phones, the easiest thing to do is to get your phone out, too. 

Now, let’s be honest—does everyone else being on their phone mean that I have to follow suit? Of course not! I could have (and probably should have) found myself an alternative, like a book to read. 

But I didn’t. 

Second, I got Covid halfway through September. It wasn’t fun. I felt miserable. And to distract myself from my misery, I scrolled social media. A lot.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to seek distraction when you’re sick and miserable. In fact, how much time any of us spend on social media is not usually a moral issue with a clear-cut right or wrong. What I can tell you is the outcome that distraction had in my life. And, friends, it wasn’t good. Spending that many hours of my day scrolling activated some pretty addictive tendencies in my brain. I started scrolling as an innocent pastime to get myself through the worst of the virus. I ended up scrolling compulsively, to the point that I didn’t get to bed on time and had trouble going to sleep once I got there—which, obviously, didn’t help my physical recovery at all.

One week of Covid undid all the progress I felt I had made during my month off social media. At the same time, though, it showed me why changing my relationship with those apps matters so deeply to me. It gave me a little taste of the consequences of allowing my interactions with social media to go unchecked and uninhibited.

What I’m doing now

Deleting your social media apps for a month can be a helpful detox. But it won’t fix your relationship with social media forever.

A temporary break can be helpful. In fact, I took a week off social media at the end of October as a sort of reset, and I plan to continue taking periodic breaks. A break can help us step out of the cycle of compulsive behavior we so easily slip into. It can help remind us what we like about social media and what we don’t miss at all. It can give us some space and mental quiet so we can recenter our focus on what truly matters. 

The good thing about this kind of break is that it’s temporary. There’s no pressure to make a permanent decision about our online presence; we’re just taking a little break, for a day or a week or a month. It can feel like an experiment, something we approach with curiosity and with a definite end point.

The problem with this kind of break is that it’s temporary.

Let me repeat something I said earlier in this post:

Healthy social media habits go beyond just deleting the app for a weekend, or a month, or even a year. They require getting honest with myself about why I’ve developed those unhealthy habits in the first place.

And—I’ll add—they require active, intentional decision-making on my part to cultivate different habits moving forward.

The reason I felt the need to take another, shorter social media break at the end of October is because after my month-long break in August, I had neglected to put in the work required to create different habits around my social media use. In the absence of a conscious decision otherwise, my behavior returned to its default: too much scrolling, and too little self-awareness surrounding the reasons why I end up zoning out on my phone so easily and so often.

The uncomfortable truth is that, no matter how often or how long I step away from social media, nothing about the way I engage with those apps will actually change unless I intentionally choose to do things differently. That’s why my August-long break didn’t produce any lasting effect: even when I noticed my habits returning to the way they’d been before, I didn’t take the time and effort to implement healthier boundaries.

This time, I’m doing things differently.

After my recent weeklong break, I took the time to decide what I wanted to do differently before I re-downloaded my social media apps. I was specific about what days and times I wanted to be “unplugged,” and I adjusted my phone’s screen time settings to match my intentions. I also took the time to think about why these changes matter to me. Who do I ultimately want to be, and what social media habits support that vision? What do I hope to do instead of scrolling on my phone, and why does making that change matter to me?

Unlike my first return to social media in September, this time I have more clarity about what changes I want to make and why they matter.

But, ultimately, I still have to make those changes.

I wish I could tie this post up with a neat little bow, a sort of happily-ever-after conclusion. But that’s not how this works. We can’t expect our habits to change effortlessly after a brief break from social media and an even briefer intention-setting session upon our return. The reality is that I’ve only been back on social media for a couple of days, not nearly long enough for me to actually change my habits—certainly not long enough to see if these changes will stick long-term.

I think that’s the point I’m trying to make in this post. You can do a week-long or month-long experiment, and it can inspire you and give you clarity and show you what is possible if you change your ways. In the end, though, it’s going to come down to actually doing things differently, day after day, month after month, long after the short-term motivation of a temporary social media break has faded. 

Growth and meaningful change require a certain level of endurance. They demand that we persist in making difficult, unexciting choices even when we’re not getting an immediate reward—not even the reward of a tidy conclusion at the end of a blog post.

I’d love to hear your thoughts—whether they be on social media or on making meaningful changes in our lives—in the comments below!

One Comment

  1. Madeleine said:

    This sounds exactly like my social media journey – I’ve done many month long breaks over the years, come back with the greatest intentions, perhaps do well for a time, but eventually end up where I started.
    Something that *can* help me is not using the apps, and instead accessing Facebook or Instagram through the browser. It adds just a tiny bit more effort, and is not quite as easy to use. But even then it’s ridiculously easy to be addicted.
    I very often wish I could delete everything and stay off social media, but there are a few things that keep me coming back. Knowing what’s going on with friends I don’t actively keep in touch with (though I have other thoughts about that, too), the practical aspects of Marketplace, and a lot of learning or finding ways to learn through Instagram.
    Anyway, I always appreciate this kind of conversation and am always hoping to read the right thing and have a lightbulb moment – but, of course, the truth is that it’s much more simple and difficult than that, which is the day to day actions, as you wrote.

    February 27, 2023

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