To say that a lot of people use social media is an understatement. At last count, Facebook had more than 2.4 billion monthly active users, Instagram had 1 billion, Twitter had around 330 million, and Snapchat boasted 310.7 million, which represents a significant chunk of the world’s estimated 7.7 billion people. But despite their incredible popularity, there have been countless studies that show social networks can cause anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
In a small experiment to find out just how much social networks impact our lives, I decided to disable my three main accounts for three weeks to see what, if any, effect it has on my day to day. While I'm not overly active on social networks and don’t post very often, I estimate still spend around 1.5 to 2 hours every day—a lot more than the 38-minute US average—on social media.
While there are numerous sites out there that fall into the social media category, I only ever use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—being 40 means I don’t use Snapchat. Then again, given the time I was spending on the different apps, you may relate to my experience given your social app of choice. First, here’s how I deleted each one...
Facebook: Deactivate vs. Permanently Delete
As with most social media sites, Facebook gives you the option of deactivating your account, which means that even though your profile is disabled, your data isn’t deleted and can be restored should you return. Alternatively, you can permanently delete your account, erasing all your content, Messenger, and messages.
After selecting ‘deactivate,’ I’m required to state my reason for leaving. It’s no surprise to see that “Privacy concern” is an option, given the site’s history. I selected “This is temporary. I’ll be back,” which is placed at the top. But Facebook, it seems, is aggressive in making sure I don’t stay away from its clutches for too long.
I’m asked if I’d like to just log out instead of deactivating and am required to pick the number of days I want to wait before my account is reactivated automatically. Instead, I decide to select “Other” as my reason for quitting, and delete the app from my phone and the bookmark from all my web browsers.
Facebook-owned Instagram doesn’t make it easy to deactivate an account, which can’t be done from the app. I found the option in the “Edit Profile” section, though it’s only to “Temporarily disable my account”—deleting everything means navigating to a dedicated web page.
I selected my reasons for leaving, enter my password, hit confirm, hit confirm again when asked if I’m sure, and I’m off Instagram.
Twitter is much easier to delete than Facebook and Instagram, and the removal page states that the account can be restored for up to 30 days after deactivation. Once that time is up, it’s gone forever. I removed my visible presence in less time and with fewer clicks than the other social networks.
One of the many accusations directed at social media is that it’s addictive. Despite the hours I spend on it every day, I’ve never considered myself addicted. Like every junkie, I believed I could quit whenever I wanted, but within a few minutes of deactivating my account, I really, really want to check Facebook. Maybe the app should come with a ‘Danger—this product is highly addictive’ warning, something Fortnite knows about.
The first time I feel the pain of not being able to access any social media sites comes during a visit to the bathroom. Like so many people, I practice the frankly unhygienic habit of checking Facebook, Instagram, etc. while sitting on the toilet. As I pull out my phone and reach for an app icon that isn’t there, I yell in frustration. Instead, I’m forced to read the BBC news app, but the stories are too lengthy for such a visit. Facebook’s and Instagram’s short, easy to digest posts were perfect crapper material.
I’ve also noticed that every so often while on my PC, I instinctively move the mouse pointer to where the Facebook bookmark used to be, only to feel a sense of disappointment when I can’t find it. Right now, I’m feeling more depressed for not having any social media to check, and my FOMO (fear of missing out) is causing me anxiety. The irony!
Much like Mark Zuckerberg, the first thing I usually do when I wake up in the morning is check Facebook. Being half asleep, I spent about 30 seconds confusingly searching through my phone before remembering why I can’t find it. At least I get out of bed a bit quicker, and my eyes are probably thankfully not to be blasted with high-intensity light as soon as they open, for once.
It’s only the second day, so I still find myself pulling my phone out to browse one of the socials, only to put it straight back in my pocket. Today, I find their absence especially grinding when waiting for someone in a café. I still have Messenger, so I start messaging people to see how they are, but many of the conversations involve them asking why I’ve left Facebook.
While I might not yet be experiencing any feelings of bliss, one effect of this experiment is apparent: I have a lot more free time. I only check Facebook for a few minutes per session, but it all adds up when scrolling through the news feed multiple times every hour. It’s the same with Instagram and Twitter. I keep getting a surprise when I look at clock and see how early it is. Procrastination is the thief of time, after all.
If you visit the gym and don’t post about it, did you even go? I may use Facebook for checking content, but Instagram has become my social network of choice in recent times for posting photos. I’d normally upload some images on the weekend, but now I’m just going about my business in private like it’s the nineties. I suddenly realize what narcissists people can be.
It’s been a week now, and while I wouldn’t say I’m at ease being off social media, I’ve started getting more used to the situation. I definitely don’t feel any happier, but I’m probably a bit calmer, and my productivity is definitely up. Would I go back on to the platforms at this point, a third of the way through? Yes, without a doubt.
Not being able to confirm my attendance at events via Facebook is proving to be a pain. It’s usually the preferred method of letting my friends know if I’m going to our monthly night out. I could always message them directly, of course.
While I’m missing Facebook most, this experiment has shown me how much I use Twitter to find trending topics and learn of breaking stories. The platform may have long been considered a rival to Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth, but it changed its App Store category from Social Networking to News back in 2016, and today it’s one of the best places to find out what’s happening in the world—as long as you ignore its many trolls and can spot fake accounts.
I’m looking to get rid of an old sofa, and a friend informs me of a local charity that takes them away for free. Sadly, they don’t have a website, but they do have a Facebook page where they conduct all their business—sigh. While he was scrolling through his own account to find their page for me, I noticed the numerous “inspirational” posts in the news feed, and for a few seconds, I’m glad to be off the site.
After almost two weeks, I’m adjusting to social media’s absence. As with any habit, getting used to life without something you’d previously splurged on daily doesn’t take long. At this point, I’m starting to wonder whether I’ll reactivate my accounts once this experiment is over, though I still can’t say that I feel less depressed or anxious. Having extra spare time is still a big bonus, of course.
I was interested to learn that Facebook could, like Instagram, eventually hide its Likes count from posts for the sake of users’ mental health. I can relate; posting something you’re proud of that gains few Likes is deflating. And it’s not just about narcissism—some people can start questioning themselves and become withdrawn if they believe they are ‘unpopular.’ If or when Facebook does follow in Instagram’s shoes, it would certainly make me less averse to re-joining the social network.
Only by deleting it can one understand how much Facebook has integrated itself into our daily lives. People keep asking me: “Did you see what X posted?” and talking about the latest interesting, cool, or funny thing they saw in their news feeds. I ask them if they’re worried about the company’s questionable reputation when it comes to protecting user privacy, but, as previous studies have shown, some people just aren’t very concerned about their private data.
With the experiment drawing to an end, it’s time to start considering where to go from here. I will admit to missing Facebook for the first week or so, and I’ve been wondering what friends who I rarely see in person are up to. Instagram hasn’t been as much of a miss, and despite not being able to utilize its news gathering abilities, I’ve learned I can live without Twitter. Not wanting to be overly committal, I decide to leave the accounts deactivated for a while longer and see how I feel.
On the penultimate day of the experiment, things took a shockingly personal turn. After going to my doctors for what I assumed was nothing more than a bad back, possibly from overtraining, blood tests showed I have type 1 diabetes. My condition was so extreme that I was admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit with diabetic ketoacidosis—a life-threatening complication.
Thankfully, a few days on an insulin drip stabilized me, but the psychological effect of knowing my life had changed so much was difficult to deal with, so I returned to social media. I used Facebook to warn people not to ignore the signs of any potential illnesses—as I did—and it led to an outpouring of messages and support from friends and family who I haven’t seen in an age.
I discovered a slew of accounts on Instagram showcasing people living with t1db and how they still have full and happy lives. And on Twitter I learned of the research being put into the condition and read of many people’s daily routines. It’s difficult to express the positive impact all this had on my poor mental state, and how much closer it's brought me to people I had almost lost touch with.
It’s no secret that social media companies have plenty to answer for: privacy violations, spreading fake news and hate speech, causing anxiety and depression, irritating posts. But I’ve learned that, as Zuckerberg often likes to point out, there are times when they really can bring people together, especially in situations like mine. Ultimately, as with so many things in life, social media has its pros and cons, though I now feel that the former can outweigh the latter.