Instagram Was Affecting My Mental Health, So I Quit. Here's What I Didn't See Coming.

When the real world shut down, social media stepped in to take its place.
The author at a conference in Palm Springs, California.
The author at a conference in Palm Springs, California.
Photo Courtesy Of Ralinda Harvey Smith

Whenever I’ve used Instagram with any frequency, I have found it to be the most expedient way for me to feel simultaneously inadequate, overwhelmed and depressed.

Instagram mothers were cooking gourmet plant-based meals for their kids, while I was popping open boxed macaroni and cheese. Instagram entrepreneurs were making millions in business at the age of 25, while I was trying to figure out the next chapter in my career at 40. On Instagram, my contemporaries embodied #BlackGirlMagic, while I was feeling completely unremarkable.

“Instagram is sooo fake,” I would hear friends say while scrolling their feeds incessantly. But the thing was, even if the performative joy on Instagram was all a farce, at least those people had the energy to produce artificial happiness. I, on the other hand, rarely do.

I’ve suffered from chronic, low-grade depression for as long as I can remember. It’s a reality akin to experiencing the world in light shades of gray. To even pretend to feel good about myself, I have to exercise, see a therapist, try to eat right, read self-help books, meditate, burn sage, clear my chakras and sometimes take medication that has never quite worked for me.

Unfortunately, half of these things don’t consistently happen, so I find it best to focus on what’s easier to control: knowing my triggers and dodging them like a bullet. And these days the main trigger is Instagram, the seemingly constant companion of everyone I know.

Depression aside, I have a pretty good life. I have an amazing husband, great friends and two beautiful children, and I live in a beachfront community that I love. However, depression makes it a challenge to see the good in life, and holding mine up next to the seemingly perfect lives shown online made it almost impossible. Balancing a distorted view of my existence against a land where everyone appears to be happy and #unbothered was starting to make my depression even harder to manage than usual.

So I decided to walk away from the app in June earlier this year, not realizing what else I’d be giving up in the process.

During the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve found some much-needed human connection by logging onto a weekly Zoom happy hour with my girlfriends. But even during our screen-to-screen gabfest, Instagram references rule the conversation. It typically starts with, “Did you see such and such’s post about XYZ?” or a gossipy “He unfollowed her weeks ago” or the investigative “They have to be staying at the same hotel — look at the floor pattern in their photos!”

I listen to them with the anxiety of a student who didn’t do the reading the night before, hunting for context clues and asking questions everybody else already knows the answers to, thanks to their constantly flowing social media feeds. I long for the days when we can engage in a discussion that doesn’t require Instagram as a prerequisite, but in my social circles, when the real world shut down, Instagram stepped in to take its place and became inescapable.

I thought there might be a way to rejuvenate my relationship with the social media platform. Maybe I was sending the wrong messages to the almighty algorithm. So one day I stopped following any obnoxious oversharers and followed only people I knew personally, along with wellness brands, motivational speakers, comedians and self-ordained Instagram preachers. After a few days of attempting to send all the right signals with likes, follows and comments, my online engagement left me feeling maxed out, bogged down and no less than crappy. It was then that I simply decided to honor my intuition and give Instagram an indefinite break.

I started ignoring it for weeks, then months, at a time. I found peace in the things that I loved: my husband and kids, my writing, experiencing nature and enjoying the clarity of having a still mind that wasn’t constantly interrupted by what the rest of the world was up to.

While the introvert in me was delighted in my self-imposed hiatus, the longer I stayed away, the more I started to realize the unintended consequences of being an offline recluse. My feelings of social media anxiety were replaced with real-life isolation, and at times I didn’t know which one I should choose.

How could I expect a friend to personally text me pictures they’d already shared with the world? Or how could I blame them for not inviting me to a socially distanced picnic if I’m the one who didn’t see the direct message?

I slowly lost touch with people I thought were friends. Even when I met someone new who casually asked me for my IG handle, I froze up before awkwardly offering my phone number instead. With the ubiquity of social media in our culture, my lack of a constantly accumulating digital permanent record was making me look like the ridiculous old auntie, afraid of the internet.

I haven’t told a lot of people that I struggle with depression. But my extended sabbatical from social media has forced me to “come out” in a way. The idea of confessing that I suffer from a mental illness is more than enough to incite a depressive episode. It feels embarrassing to me, a disconnect from my self-image as a strong Black woman. And yet, fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve struggled with depression long enough to know that it isn’t about being strong. It’s about doing everything you need to do to take care of yourself — surviving, even trying to thrive, when your brain is fighting against you.

I need my friends and family to understand that me not liking a post or being in their comments with hearts and crying/laughing emojis or joining their Instagram Live isn’t an affront to them. It’s something I need to do for myself, at least for right now. Keeping my head in safe spaces has to be my true north. There are times when I can’t emotionally afford to go anywhere else.

“Social media just doesn’t make me feel good” were the words I used recently to explain to a close friend why I hadn’t commented on her posts.

To my relief, she just replied, “Yeah, it’s so toxic.”

Then, just like I’d been longing for, we had a conversation like two friends in real life who lived in a world where Instagram didn’t exist.

Ralinda Harvey Smith is a freelance writer and author who lives in Santa Monica, CA. You can follow her on Twitter @ralinda.

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