Five years ago this December, I was dancing in a bar in Soho. I was drunk and it was late. I was having a great time. Until I realised my bag was missing. All my valuables were gone, including my iPhone.
My mum sent me a temporary burner phone – a pay-as-you-go which only allowed me to call, text and play Snake. For 18 months – during which I met up with a friend in Paris – I didn’t have, want or need a smartphone. When I finally did go back to an iPhone, I decided I wasn’t going to reinstall Instagram. And I haven’t been on the app since.
Pretty quickly I realised that, for me, Instagram was a distorted fairground mirror, blowing up my insecurities to ugly and nightmarish proportions. And it was becoming a problem. I had spent too much time looking at skinny girls on beaches in Mexico. I’d spent far too long hypnotised by the success of others, even when I knew how carefully constructed, and sometimes hollow, these window displays of achievements were.
Very quickly, I knew I didn't like what I was seeing. I didn’t like pretence sold as reality; I didn’t like the unspoken competition. As a 30-year-old who worked in the media, I swam against the stream. I could feel its pull, but resisted. Having my phone stolen was a blessing: I was free.
Over the last five years, I have had Instagram lapses. I have never posted, but when I have felt particularly bad about myself, I have very occasionally lurked, only ever looking at the same handful of skinny girls. It is the same as having a McDonald’s: I experience the craving, a moment of relief, and then I feel sick. And I’m not alone. I'll never forget overhearing a woman crying into her phone in a cafe that she couldn't bear to be alone and see what “everyone was putting on Instagram”.
A study from the Royal Society of Public Health in 2017 found that Instagram had the most negative impact, out of all the social media platforms, on young people. Yet while some studies have linked social media to depression, anxiety and sleeplessness, particularly in girls, a report from the government’s Science and Technology Committee suggests that there is still a crucial lack of academic data in this area. In 2020, the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for big tech companies to share data and fund research into the impact such platforms have.
As a journalist, I’ve had to contact people on Instagram a couple of times when I’ve exhausted all other avenues. The last time I logged in, I was amazed by how remote the real world felt, as if the world of Instagram were immune to what was happening in the news (maybe that's the point?). I’m always surprised how normalised extreme navel-gazing has become, alongside looking at intimate, glossy portrayals of other people’s lives – even those images that are dressed up to look like politics, or activism, or #empowerment.
I have often wondered about my career. Three years ago I became self-employed. Instagram is a free and highly effective marketing tool. It is also a place to find opportunities. In our age of influencer-writers, I have watched large follower-counts turn into lucrative writing careers – something I dream of. Good friends have advised me to log on, and begin promoting my work and myself. Bite the bullet, play the game. But how can I sell myself on a platform that makes me feel so bad? How can I take part in a game that I believe is so unhealthy – and so rigged?
How can I take part in a game that I believe is so unhealthy and so rigged?
I should disclose that I am on Twitter – another problematic platform. You could level some of my Instagram accusations against Twitter, but it allows me to separate myself from my work in a way that Instagram seems to intentionally blur. Or, perhaps, I’ve just chosen my millennial poison.
The pandemic has shifted things slightly. When there aren’t many people in our physical lives, companionship – however we access it – is more precious than ever. I know I miss pictures of babies, and of cross-stitching. These are things that friends might have shown me over wine in the before times.
Dr Catherine Huckle, a chartered clinical psychologist at the University of Surrey, recognises that there are two sides to the no-social-media coin. “Social media allows you to know things about people’s lives, anchoring you and creating connections that might otherwise diminish without regular contact,” she tells me. “Being able to ‘like’ and validate what someone chooses to share – and vice versa – can give a sense of reciprocity, and we know reciprocity is important in friendships.”
But being off social media, she adds, “means that you are more likely to connect with people directly – via call or text, for example – which adds richness to that interaction”. Last Saturday I had a two-hour phone call with a friend. Perhaps there are fewer people in my life, but the relationships I do have feel very meaningful.
I have little doubt that its absence has spared me untold amounts of unnecessary anxiety
Of course, I do understand that Instagram can provide community and support, alongside its democratising effect. I know people have found careers and friends on it. I know plenty of people who enjoy it simply and straightforwardly. But I have little doubt that its absence has spared me untold amounts of unnecessary anxiety – over how I look, my career, the ability to stalk ex-partners, my reliance on external validation… and from feeling the need to buy £50 candles.
For the purposes of writing this article, I decided to log in to my old account: someone is showing off their workspace; an influencer wearing cashmere joggers is telling us to take care of ourselves. Next comes a quote from Martin Luther King. Park selfies in boots and macs and expensive handbags come thick and fast.
And I feel exactly as I did five years ago: that alongside its cruel ability to carve out an empty pit of self-doubt in my stomach – and the collective, borderline-surreal charade that everything is A-OK – it turns people into mannequins, humans into brands, and lives into adverts. And so – especially in these incredible times – it is still not the lens through which I want to look at the world.