By the time Jesse Waits noticed his relationship with social media had grown into something he didn’t like, he already had the vocabulary to say so.
His experience recovering from a marijuana addiction had taught him to take stock of his behaviors and get rid of ones that weren’t serving him, said the 39-year-old, who works at a tech repair counter in Cincinnati.
Waits has a house, friends and a partner. But his online connections are sparse after permanently logging off Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter last year during a digital detox. (He uses Instagram on his desktop to promote his side business, he said.) He says he feels happier and more present. But not everybody around him gets it. Some people rib him with a ‘Wow, good for you’ or emotion-dump about their own social media hang-ups.
“Addiction is the most interesting of diseases because it’s a disease that convinces you that you don’t have a disease, right?” he said.
Plenty of Americans claim social media is a scourge, but few cut the cord. Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults say social media has a mostly negative impact on life in this country, but 72 percent maintain at least one social media account, according to data from Pew Research Center. Headlines point at social apps to explain upward trends in anxiety, depression and loneliness among Americans, but people of all ages continue turning to social media to build communities. Amid our gripes and widespread distrust, social media serves as a new public square, where news develops, leaders debate and users form potentially lifesaving connections.
Some people find life on social media unworkable. In interviews, people who don’t use social media repeatedly said it made them feel anxious or alienated. A few talked about a lack of boundaries or overuse. As the line between “online” and “real life” thins, some people are logging off permanently because the downsides feel too profound: They struggle to control how much time they spent on the apps or feel burdened by the constant stream of images and information.
Sometimes they feel lonely, they say — but life can be lonely, and social media wasn’t helping.
Friends and family react to the social-media unpluggers with bland admiration or subtle annoyance — like when someone announces they don’t own a TV. As debate over the costs and benefits of social media hits a fever pitch, the unpluggers are shutting out the noise.
Thomas, a 28-year-old teacher in Cleveland who asked to go by his first name only to protect his job, deleted his social media accounts in 2018 after he noticed himself staying up too late scrolling, debating with relatives over politics and reading dubious news sources.
“It felt like this cataclysmic confluence of things,” he said. “It could be overwhelming.”
When he tells people he’s unplugged, they always ask the same questions: Why did you quit? How do you know what’s happening in the world? Do you keep in touch with your friends?
He thinks people are just wondering whether he’s happy. And he is — he watches his favorite TV shows, has long conversations and wastes less time, he said.
Social app features such as the like-counter and infinite scroll can hook the brain with intermittent hits of dopamine, experts say, while algorithms collect signals about which content intrigues or upsets us so the apps can show us more. Some studies have used criteria developed for diagnosing “internet gaming disorders” to evaluate social media users for dependence, said Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association. One study found half of adolescent subjects reported a sign of “problematic social media use” such as preoccupation or withdrawal. When Prinstein presents these findings to adults, they usually commiserate, he said.
But claiming that social media turns people into lonely app addicts is simplistic, according to Prinstein. Young people in particular make friends online that reduce their risk of dangerous mental health issues and suicide, research has shown. Whether social media feels like a playground or a hellscape depends on a variety of individual factors, Prinstein said. Some of us are vulnerable to compulsive behaviors. Others are sensitive to tragic news, cursory interactions or social comparison.
Prinstein recommended moderation, but some people take drastic measures, such as Jarrod Turnbull, a 22-year-old actor and teacher in Brooklyn. After a particularly bad scene in a college acting class, one of Turnbull’s instructors gave a speech about the dangers of social media for young artists, he said. These days, theater students can’t even focus on what’s in front of them, he recalled the teacher saying.
That was on a Friday. By Monday, Turnbull had deleted Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram from his phone. It’s made him a better performer, he said, though he never mentions it if people don’t ask because he doesn’t want to come off as superior.
“The reaction is always like, ‘Oh, good for you,’” he said, putting on a snide voice.
Not every break from social media is a clean one. Twenty-nine-year-old Sadia Naseem kept off social media through junior high and high school. In college, she kept a shell of a Facebook account to coordinate group projects. But after getting her first job as a hardware engineer at Texas Instruments, she started itching to share all the exciting details of her new life, she said. She recalled sitting in an airport before her first business trip, mentally planning a splashy Facebook post with photos and cute captions from her travels.
But when she returned home and the time came to actually share the photos, she lost her will. The whole thing felt like a chore — and a risk, she said.
“If I see hundreds of people in a day and I’m comparing and comparing myself, naturally, why would I multiply that times thousands or millions by also doing it online?” she said.
Katie Gammelgard, a 43-year-old high school teacher, said she quit social media because it would put her in a down mood. She’d reflexively judge what other people posted, then judge herself for judging. She’d scroll past political opinions and pictures of food, then feel guilty for feeling so uninterested. Weren’t these people supposed to be her friends?
“It felt like I could never care enough,” she said.
The unpluggers’ impressions say something deeper about our relationship with social apps, said Jordan Shapiro, an associate professor at Temple University whose research spans relationships, education and the internet. Yes, social apps bring us face to face with unhealthy comparison, unrealistic beauty standards, political dysfunction, shallow relationships and misinformation, but those are baked into our culture, and logging off social media doesn’t make them go away. For example, teen girls were dealing with body image problems long before Instagram, and deleting the app won’t fix oppressive beauty standards, he said.
“There are absolutely great reasons for the kind of existential dread people are experiencing,” Shapiro said. “They may choose to dissociate because social media triggers those feelings, and that’s reasonable, but let’s not pretend it’s because of social media,” he said.
Waits, the tech repair wiz, said he understands Shapiro’s point: Leaving the apps doesn’t fix society. But that was never his claim, and he’s still not going back. The longer he’s away from social media, the more it feels like a dream he can’t remember.
“Social media is a parallel world that’s happening,” he said. “I just choose not to tune into that channel.”