The case for vanishing from social media without a trace

When you need a break from social media, don’t be afraid to pull the plug

Daily+Collegian

Daily Collegian

By Kelly McMahan, Collegian Columnist

It’s been nearly three years since I vanished from social media without a trace.

I wiped all of my accounts and deleted them — a process these apps made tedious and nearly impossible. I was bracing for the shock of going cold turkey, but instead, I felt as if some pervasive, dopamine-induced static was finally lifted from my brain. Looking back on this moment, I find myself thinking, “isn’t it a warning sign that we’re using the language of drug addiction to describe Instagram?”

But is social media really that bad? Maybe it’s just me. The logic of probability leads me to believe there must be at least a few people out there who maintain a healthy relationship with it. Social media and I don’t mix. I’ll admit that my experiences may not be universal, but in an age where engagement metrics and algorithms are the rulers of enterprise, it doesn’t seem like social media is designed to be consumed in moderation.

If you’ve ever felt burdened or burned out by social media, no matter your age, I strongly urge you to pull the plug completely.

I speak on this topic at a time when articles about social media’s damaging effects on mental health are ubiquitous. As a “Gen Z” college student, I want to add my perspective to the discussion. I’m not one for using generational labels, but I cannot deny that I’m from a generation that came of age in the information era, or that my peers and I spent formative years absorbing the volatile feeds of politics, pandemics and toxic trends.

For years in high school, I consumed Twitter posts of hate and projected frustration. Misinformation and anxiety, especially for fellow teens, were rampant on TikTok, which just started to reach its influence and popularity peak with Gen Z at the time. Instagram was the sounding board of my peers and their everyday discontents. It was also a stage for unrealistic expectations, false advertisements and constant comparison. A feedback loop of internal and external reactions is created, and I was most certainly dragged into that cycle.

Of course, there were some “good news” posts — pastel graphics to remind me to drink water and think positive and memes that made my friends and I cry from laughing. But these were mere specks in a corrosive content terrain that was slowly eating away at my mental health.

Social media companies are hoping users will keep convincing themselves they have the ability and self-control to maintain a healthy relationship with their apps. But “pulling the plug” is your best shot at giving yourself an honest break from social media’s damaging effects. Psychologically, it’s nearly impossible to strike a healthy balance when it comes to social media usage.

But why is it so hard to find this balance? It’s a two-sided issue. Algorithms are programmed to captivate our brains, and our brains are programmed to crave algorithms. It’s a phenomenon described by Stanford psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lembke, who says social media manipulates the chemicals in our brains on a primordial level.

“We’re wired to connect,” Lembke said. “It’s kept us alive for millions of years in a world of scarcity and ever-present danger. Our brains release dopamine when we make human connections, which incentivizes us to do it again.”

“These apps can cause the release of large amounts of dopamine into our brains’ reward pathway all at once, just like heroin, or meth, or alcohol,” Lembke explained.

From here, it’s a downward spiral. Our brains have natural search-and-explore impulses, and algorithms are so optimal at feeding this impulse. Think of your own current feeds — the content is similar enough to what you’ve liked before but novel enough to get you fixated on something.

“Upon signing off, the brain is plunged into a dopamine-deficit state as it attempts to adapt to the unnaturally high levels of dopamine social media just released,” Lembke said. “Which is why social media often feels good while we’re doing it but horrible as soon as we stop.”

We’re faced with something unnatural that’s essentially hacking the innate hardware of our brains, farming dopamine for views and polluting the chemical balance that fuels our mental well-being.

In response, many give themselves weekly or monthly social media detoxes. A month-long detox isn’t a bad idea.

“A whole month is more typically the minimum amount of time we need away from our drug of choice, whether it’s heroin or Instagram, to reset our dopamine reward pathways,” Lembke said.

However, if you’ve decided to commit to a long break from social media, or quit it altogether, it is of utmost importance to “vanish.”

Facebook and Twitter accounts are sneaky. They give users the opportunity to deactivate their account for a set period of time, but not delete it altogether. If you do try to delete your account, you’ll end up having to sift through various subcategories in the settings tab, searching for the “delete account” button in some inconspicuous location with an 11-point font. I recall having to Google “how to delete your Facebook account,” and I’m supposed to be a teenage tech wiz.

Social media platforms bank on the fact that you’ll be wishy-washy about disconnecting, bargaining with the false necessity of your followings and FOMO, and only choose to deactivate, not delete, your accounts. But taking time away, without the need to apologize or explain your actions to others, is truly the best way to detoxify.

I strongly believe that the extremity of sudden silence is exactly what you need to jolt yourself out of the algorithmic thinking patterns. Pulling the plug is about giving yourself a chance to get some perspective. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can fill the time void created by social media’s absence. Especially in the age of rampant misinformation, doom-scrolling and negativity, there is often no better solace than the complete quietness that you can create for yourself.

Kelly McMahan can be reached at [email protected].