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The Great Escape
When I got off social media, things got real
Salenna Weiner
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I like social media, I really do. Who doesn’t enjoy a platform where one can brag about their food, overexpose personal relationships, and have fruitless arguments with strangers?

Social media helps you stay connected with your friends and up-to-date. It can also be a gateway into other people’s lives: You learn what activities they enjoy, who their friends are, their favorite book, the gym they go to. You don’t even have to know them to discover all this information.

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But it’s not really a window into the truth, because we are all showing each other an ideal life. Nobody will ever achieve a life that’s as good as an Instagram account looks, and they’ll feel lousy and if they’re shy, maybe withdraw more. I know, because I got sucked into all the social media craziness before I even turned 16.

When I was 12 years old I created an Instagram account to post random pictures I took off of the internet. I only did it to get Likes. Whenever I saw the little red hearts glow up in the corner of my screen, I was filled with glee, even though I had no connection to the pictures. I had skimmed the app to see what pictures people enjoy, so I just went to the Internet and grabbed the cute puppy or inspiring graffiti or two people kissing in the rain.

People Liked what I posted, and so, I thought, they liked me. Every time I posted something, I patiently waited for the Likes to accumulate. Back then, once the number of Likes hit 11, Instagram would get rid of the Likers’ names and just display the number of people. So 11 became my goal. If, after an hour, the post didn’t have 11 or more Likes, I’d delete it and start again. I didn’t have many friends in middle school, so Likes and followers made me feel popular.

In 7th grade I started a new Instagram account—a personal one for photos of me. Everyone had an Instagram at that point, so I had to join in. I posted photos of myself with a group of friends; of my legs on the beach comparing them to hot dogs; of my lunch; a cool shot of me jumping over a bench. I used the maximum amount of hashtags to try to get the most Likes I could. I told everyone from my class to follow me.

Scrolling and Seething

I created the account to gain a ton of followers so I could be popular on some kind of platform, but when I graduated middle school, I forgot about it.

In my first year in high school, everyone was on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, with some also on Tumblr and Twitter. If you met someone new and forgot their name, it was OK because they would give you their Instagram handle or Facebook profile.

I thought, “If everyone is so hyped about this app, I should resurrect my old Instagram account.” I logged back on, and on my feed I saw aesthetically pleasing photos my old classmates had posted, pages of them. I got excited. “I can post good pictures too now, and I’ll gain followers and be cool,” I thought.

image by YC-Art Dept

I went to my profile, saw the old pictures that I had posted, and cringed at the captions, which had way too many emojis and hashtags. I decided I needed a clean slate. I deleted almost all the photos. I hesitated to delete the old photos from my past, but I decided they were insignificant and could be easily replaced. I looked at them with a more critical eye, and they weren’t good enough anymore.

I got obsessed. I told everyone I knew to follow me. I’d post a selfie or a skyline and refresh the app constantly to see how many Likes it got. I scoured every picture I posted, debating whether it was good enough to post and making sure there wasn’t something off about it. I had been bullied when I was younger, and I was always nervous about judgmental and negative comments.

I’d scroll through my feed and people’s posts for hours at a time. I would start off at a friend’s post about coffee, then somehow end up on the profile of their second cousin’s best friend’s baby. Late at night, I’d scroll until my eyes fell shut. I got bad dark circles underneath my eyes and was always tired, even during important classes in school.

I was never just living. Everywhere I went I thought of what would be a good picture to post. I took picture after picture, then combed through them to find the perfect one. Often I’d stare and stare at them and end up posting nothing. I agonized over matching the colors and the filters and how to space posts out so they wouldn’t be close time-wise.

Sometimes, after hours on the app, I’d close it and search for something else to do. Then, without thinking, I’d open up Instagram again, forgetting I had just closed it.

Instagram brought out a new kind of jealousy. I saw people post pictures of themselves on vacation and enjoying themselves and I thought, “Why can’t I be there?” I saw people post pictures of themselves and their beauty and I thought, “Why can’t I look like that?” I saw people’s amazing pictures and themes that came together so well and I thought, “Why can’t I do that?” I’d seethe about how many Likes and followers they had.

Fake Haven

I slowly began to realize how much time I wasted thinking about the app and on my phone in general. It was my haven from the real world. I could go on it and retreat from everything around me. It’s not a person, yet I felt comfortable with it and confided in it.

If I was alone in any setting, I took out my phone because it felt weird sitting there doing nothing. Even if I had no reason to be on my phone or nothing to do on it, I’d still take it out, unlock the screen, and just stare at it waiting for something to come to me. I’d catch myself doing this and think, “What’s wrong with me?”

I worried about how this technology was affecting me. I decided I had to do something. I had to prove to myself that I could control my own actions.

image by YC-Art Dept

I logged out of my Instagram account and deleted the app. I told everyone I was texting through the app to keep in contact with me through my phone number. Instagram was more convenient for several of my friends who wouldn’t switch texting platforms, so we began to drift apart. That stung at first, but then I thought of it as not wasting time on people who put no effort into our relationship. It was another important thing I realized when I left Instagram.

Along with deleting the app, I also tried to cut down on my use of my phone in general. When I was waiting for something, instead of going straight to my phone, I would look around and take in the environment around me, or plan my day in my head.

Real Life

Often I’m the only one at school not on my phone. Between classes one day, I stayed off my phone, and occasionally someone would look up and spot me and I’d move my eyes away, feeling awkward. I saw that friends who stood together weren’t even communicating; they were just separately doing something on their phones. I found it ironic that the only person talking was talking on her phone.

Deleting Instagram helped me clear my mind and free myself from technology. I wasn’t constantly looking at photos or chasing Likes. I just took pictures of stuff I liked because it was fun. I showed my photos to individuals who might enjoy them.

Being off social media put me in a better place. I’m less reliant on my phone and more comfortable in a social setting. I spend more time communicating with the people around me and thinking. I became more aware of time and how I spent it. The time away taught me to be better to myself. I wasn’t looking at other people’s profiles and their photos, judging them and wishing I had the same beauty or aesthetic. I saw how people were in real life, not through their photos. I saw their character and their actions; I observed things that you would not be able to perceive through a photo. When I stopped looking at people through a screen, I compared myself to them a lot less.

Not being up to date with my friends’ Instagram posts, captions, or Snapchat stories didn’t really exclude me from their life. I still kept in touch with my friends through texts or talking in real life. If we wanted to discuss plans, we would do it personally, not ask, “Did you see my post about X?” I wasn’t missing out on anything.

One of my best friends in high school has never had an Instagram or a Snapchat. She doesn’t have a smartphone so her options are limited. Her phone is a bit outdated, so even texting is complex. She has Facebook but she never posts on it. We’ve been best friends for three years; our entire relationship has been built on real-life communication and getting to know and trust each other that way.

Sometimes when we had few classes together and little time to talk, we would write each other letters. It would be a page or two long about our weekend or what’s on our mind. She’d decorate them with markers and notes and stickers and doodles and complex designs with impressive calligraphy. I would try to reciprocate, but mine would rarely match up to the beauty she put in hers. But it didn’t feel like a competition; what we wrote each other was what mattered.

Whenever we had a chance, we would just hand these letters to each other in between classes, in the locker room or in the hallway. Receiving them always filled me with joy. Knowing someone took time to create something just for my eyes to read was gratifying. This personal communication is how our friendship grew strong.

(NYC-2018-01-16)