In the seven years since I first begged my mom for permission to create a Facebook profile, I tried and failed to reduce my social media usage countless times.
I deleted apps from my phone, created mini-challenges for myself like seeing how long I could go without posting ― I even deactivated my profiles.
These approaches never worked for long, though. How could they? I’m a millennial. Social media functioned as my yearbook, my diary, my newspaper, my photo album, my personal PR team and part of my livelihood as a communications professional and freelance writer. It was even the entire basis of some of my relationships. I couldn’t just lose all of that.
But what had started as an innocent way for my teenage self to connect with faraway friends and family eventually grew into an obsession that my 22-year-old self couldn’t shake. The first thing I’d do every morning was to coax myself into a state of semi-awakeness by checking Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, setting in motion a cycle of “scroll, update, repeat” that continued until I fell asleep each night. I felt like I was living through a screen, exposing myself to an endless stream of selfies, pet pictures, outfits-of-the-day, celebrity gossip, political chaos, advertising and hashtags.
I was so plugged into other people’s lives that I was forgetting to live my own. And that wasn’t all. Despite hating math, I was obsessed with numbers. I craved favorites and likes and retweets. I lived for the hit of dopamine that came with each new notification announcing that someone had engaged with my posts.
I knew full well that fixating on these stats was stupid and futile, but even now, I can recall the jealousy I felt when I saw how many more thumbs-up my Facebook friends’ senior portraits received than my own. Because my life revolved around metrics, the difference between the number of likes I got and the number of likes my friends got appeared to be tangible proof that I was less likable than my friends.
What had started as an innocent way for my teenage self to connect with faraway friends and family eventually grew into an obsession that my 22-year-old self couldn’t shake.
And that was no isolated incident. For so many years, I held my breath after sharing personal updates on Facebook — refreshing and refreshing and refreshing the page as I waited for the first notification to come in — unable to feel completely proud of my latest accomplishment or big decision or new blog post until my Facebook friends voiced their approval.
In my worst moments, I would catch myself fantasizing about future milestones such as marriage, job promotions and vacations not in terms of how wonderful the moments would be, but how impressive the analytics would be. (I mean, gallivanting across Europe or getting asked to spend the rest of my life with my boyfriend would be cool and all, but so would finally reaching triple-digit hearts on Instagram, right?!) I knew I couldn’t keep living like that.
So last March, I downloaded all of my Facebook data, backed up my Instagram photos, logged out of Snapchat — even deleted my Twitter account with its tiny display reading “Joined in 2009” — and stepped bravely into a world free of retweets and thinspo and endless pictures of other people’s children.
In the 16 months that have passed since then, I’ve felt both more and less connected to the world than ever before. I’ve taken far fewer selfies, resulting in a heightened self-esteem that stems from no longer getting caught off-guard by the front-facing camera on Snapchat. I’ve said goodbye to my identity as the girl who got retweeted by Starbucks that one time and said hello to this new version of myself who finds out about all of life’s most important moments (yes, I am 100 percent referring to Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy) through texts from my mom and sister.
My new offline life has forced me to change how I keep up with current events and pass time in checkout lines. I’ve discovered other ways to get in touch with people and I’ve come to accept that some of my friendships were internet-based and nothing more. Every day is no longer some weird made-up #NationalSomethingDay that inspires hundreds of thematic photos that I would once scroll through during my daily hunt for engagement announcements and pictures of Ed Sheeran’s cats.
Before I start making myself out to be some off-the-grid ascetic, let me clarify: Even without an account, it is still totally possible to keep up with social media. Thanks to public profiles that you don’t have to log in ― or even have an account ― to view, Googling, and my mom’s dangerously predictable passwords, there are still people I haven’t missed a post from in the past year. But despite occasionally keeping up with profiles from afar, scrolling social media no longer fills every second of free time I have. It has officially lost its role as my go-to source of entertainment, connection and affirmation ― and it feels so damn good.
Of course, with so much of the world connected to social media, it can be hard to feel fully present in society without a profile. When I deleted my accounts, it meant losing the years of data stored on my Nike+ Run Club app, among others. I missed lots of details from my sister’s study abroad trip to Berlin, most of which were documented on Snapchat. There has been more than one uncomfortable conversation with a friend or family member who feels slighted because they think I’ve unfriended or unfollowed them. Without social media reminders, almost no one remembers my birthday and I return the favor by remaining completely oblivious to theirs.
Impossible as it once seemed, I’ve even grown to enjoy privacy ― to feel like my life is full of little secrets and treasures that only those closest to me get to know about, even if the secret is only what I ate for breakfast.
I’ve learned that I don’t fit neatly into 140 or 280 characters, or an ‘about me’ section, or even an entire website. And I don’t have to or ― at least today ― want to.
But perhaps the biggest discovery I made was myself, the person who had been behind the screen all along. The platform was never the problem. The problem was me ― how one morning I woke up and couldn’t remember the last time I went a day without using Instagram or scanning Twitter or logging into Facebook. The past year was all about getting back in the driver’s seat of my own life and valuing whom and what were right in front of me, instead of drowning them out with comparisons and distractions.
For years, I used social media to try to find myself and, when I couldn’t do that, to try to define myself ― to brand myself as someone more prolific, more professional, more poised than who I am offline. Maybe someday I’ll reach a point where I’m ready to return. Maybe not. For now, the benefits far outweigh any FOMO I might have.
My decision to log off has improved so many things from my productivity to my relationships to my worldview. I’ve learned that I don’t fit neatly into 140 or 280 characters, or an “about me” section, or even an entire website. And I don’t have to or ― at least today ― want to. No one, online or off, could ever possibly condense their worth, their identity or their impact into gigabytes and pixels and code. And knowing that feels infinitely better than any number of favorites or likes or retweets ever could.