It was when Mehret Biruk lost two hours of her life to Instagram that she knew the time had come to escape. What had she been looking at? She couldn’t even remember in the moments immediately afterwards. Instagram, she recalls thinking, was “winning the war on my attention”. The irony was that Biruk had returned to the photo and video-sharing platform only some months earlier, after a three-year break. And she had only returned to promote her website and newsletter, in which she writes about the benefits of spending less time online. She hoped to reach the people who might want help. Instead, she found herself getting sucked back in. “That’s the scary part to me. It was just instantly back to scrolling, and waiting for the likes and comments.”
In August, the actor Tom Holland posted a video on Instagram saying he was taking a break from the platform and Twitter, because he found them overstimulating and overwhelming. “I get caught up and I spiral when I read things about me online and ultimately, it’s very detrimental to my mental health,” he said. Others, such as the singer Lizzo and actor Selena Gomez, have previously announced breaks.
Earlier this year, one study suggested a week-long hiatus was enough to have a positive effect. In a group randomly selected to take a break from platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, researchers found that symptoms of depression and anxiety had reduced, and overall wellbeing increased.
Would a longer period have an even bigger impact? “We’re still trying to understand whether taking a longer break has longer-term benefits for people,” says Jeffrey Lambert, lecturer in health and exercise psychology at the University of Bath, who carried out the research. “For a lot of people, just taking that one-week break gave them an opportunity to reflect on how much they were using social media, and their reasons for using it. Were they using it mindlessly, just scrolling? Or were they using it for a positive purpose, to connect meaningfully with friends or family”.
The researchers interviewed some of the participants a year later. “There were some people that did continue to stay off social media,” says Lambert. “Some went back to it but created certain rules for themselves around how they would engage with it. Maybe they deleted the apps off their phone, or they decided not to use it in the morning when they first woke up.”
This was the case for Korkor Kanor, a public relations executive, who was on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat and found it had become overwhelming and time-consuming. “I couldn’t put my phone down without getting a notification,” she says. Sometimes she would turn the notifications off, “but you find yourself returning – people messaged me, because I was using it as an alternative to giving out my phone number”. Kanor found Twitter had become a burden, “especially during the pandemic – it was so much to face every day.” She felt a pressure to tweet, particularly about social justice because, she says, “your silence is seen as some kind of compliance. So I just removed myself from that space altogether. It’s hard, because you do want to speak, but in a safe space among people that you know and trust, and you can exchange ideas peacefully, not reactively.”
Kanor deleted Snapchat, and came off Twitter and Instagram for around nine months. The endless scrolling, she realised, “took a lot of energy; it would be a huge source of stimuli that would drain me and I didn’t realise it until I stopped using it”. During her break, she says, she noticed she had “more energy and I was able to hold conversations with people, and not be distracted. I was way more balanced emotionally.” Looking back, she realises, sad or troubling posts affected her own moods without her realising.
When she did go back to social media, it was with changes. She doesn’t use Twitter as much as she did, and on Instagram she has changed who can see her posts. She also intends to schedule regular breaks from social media, with another one this month. “I can’t be on it regularly any more,” she says. “I don’t think that’s healthy for me because it becomes really overstimulating. I feel a lot better when I’m off and then I’m like: ‘Let’s see what’s going on.’”
For Sneha Morjaria, a management consultant, having a social media break also allowed her to create new rules once she went back. After she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, her therapist advised deleting social media apps. She had mainly used Instagram and TikTok. “If I was at a family dinner, I’d be that person randomly scrolling and not paying attention. It just made me really stressed. You’re always comparing yourself to other people – someone’s on holiday, someone’s done this. You wouldn’t invite hundreds of people into your home but that space in your head is your home, and you’re inviting hundreds of people there as you scroll past, watching them.” She found, she says, “you can forget who you are as a person, what your opinions are, what your values are. I didn’t realise how badly it had affected me until I was off it.”
She took more than four months off and is now using social media again, but with rules. For her business account, Morjaria employed someone else to handle it, and on her personal account she only follows people she knows personally. “I put a timer on my phone, so I don’t spend more than 30 minutes a day on Instagram.”
Social media, says clinical psychologist Dr Roberta Babb, can be overwhelming. “We have access to vast amounts of information. It is both controllable and uncontrollable – you can actively search for stuff but also things pop up in your timeline, you get notifications, so there is the sense of being out of control.” It is also never off – even if you take a break, you know it’s going on without you. “Then people worry they’re going to miss out on something so they keep looking. Because of the context we’re living in at the moment, we’re also aware that things change so quickly. How the world was when you woke up, for example, may not be the same world when you leave work.”
By spending too long on social media, she says, users are “exposing themselves to quite a lot of negative, traumatic stuff. The balance between good things and not-so-good things isn’t equal, and that can be quite traumatic for people and trigger things for them that may be painful, unresolved or quite raw.” And when we compare ourselves with other people’s lives, as presented on social media, we hardly ever come off well, Babb points out. Even though we know we’re looking at other people’s highlights, which might even be staged, “it’s hard to hold that in mind when you’re looking at an image. That then further exacerbates any feelings of negativity. It can be quite damaging in terms of really denting people’s confidence and self-esteem and because it’s so prevalent and pervasive, it’s corrosive, it slowly chips away at people.” She likes the idea of a break, saying it can help you “reconnect with who you are, what’s important to you, and give you more confidence in thinking you have a choice as to what information you access. What do you want to learn about? As opposed to feeling that you’re a passive recipient of all this information that’s washing around the internet.”
For some, the break seems permanent. Eddie Coram-James took a year off social media, then returned for another year before leaving around six months ago. “I would be having conversations with my girlfriend and actually I would be looking at my phone, and not only was that bad for my relationships, it also meant that there was no space in my life any more.” He felt it was affecting his ability to concentrate: “It was making me more restless. When I was on a train, immediately I would bring my phone out. Whenever there was a moment that wasn’t filled with something, my phone would come out and I would start flicking through this absolute garbage.”
Although he came off it, Coram-James admits it is “a bit peculiar” that he runs a digital marketing agency, of which social media is a key part. “I just became deeply uncomfortable with what social media is, how it’s targeting people, the kind of data that they’re using in order to do that. The penny truly dropped that this wasn’t actually some benign thing, just some fun – the users are the product, and you are being sold, and then sold to, in really full-on ways.” In terms of the world his business operates in, he says, “whereas I take no issue with making sure that an ad gets in front of a demographically appropriate group, this has been pushed to its limits. ‘Relationship targeting’ – where your phone identifies which people you spend the most time with, and so those people start getting ads appropriate for you, so that they strike up a conversation with you about it – is perhaps the most egregious example of this.”
Is it not a little hypocritical to work in social media if he thinks it’s harmful? “I think it’s harmful to me. I don’t go around lecturing people, because I have no idea what their experience is. I’m someone that really appreciates space and time, and trying not to fill my life with overstimulation. If I had a massive moral issue with it in general, then I would probably not offer it. That’s not to say I don’t have some serious questions about it. I do, and I think that over time, regulation will come in.”
Gayle Macdonald, a sobriety coach, would use social media, mainly Instagram and Facebook, every day. “It would be the first thing that I looked at in the morning when I woke up, and the thing I looked at before I went to bed.” Sometimes if she woke up in the middle of the night, she says, “I would sneak a look. It was just all-consuming.”
She says she thought about social media much of the time: “wanting to do it, not wanting to do it, feeling guilty for being on it, feeling guilty for not being on it, planning when I was going to be on there”. It reminded her of something else – a time in her life when alcohol had become a problem. “It was beginning to feel like my drinking before I stopped,” she says. Macdonald took a break in February, deciding to do seven days to begin with. Although she felt anxious for the first couple of days, absent-mindedly picking up her phone before she remembered she had deleted the apps, she soon started to feel much better. She never went back.
In a new study, still under peer review, psychologists surveyed people who had taken social media detoxes. They found, on average, the participants had taken a break three times, and more than half had taken a detox lasting up to a week. “One of the reasons we were interested in it is because the term ‘social media detox’ is becoming more apparent,” says David Robertson, lecturer in psychology at the University of Strathclyde and one of the authors of the study.
Are we approaching a point where people are factoring a regular detox into their social media usage? “That’s the indication that we got from the study,” says Robertson. “Rather than excessive social media use being an addictive compulsion, it was more like a self-regulated behaviour.” People were taking breaks when they thought they were over-using it. “They were aware of the positive benefits to their sleep, anxiety, relationships and to their mood. They knew that those things would improve if they took a little break from social media.”
People went back to social media, the study found, not out of an “addictive compulsion – it was more about the fear of missing out,” says Robertson. “Or they were keen to see friends, or they were concerned that friends may not appreciate that they hadn’t liked or commented on posts, or were missing key information about social groups.” Many went back to the same level of usage as before, he says, “which again speaks to this idea of self-regulated behaviour, that they’re able to take breaks as and when they want”.
For a successful detox, he suggests telling your friends and family you’ll still be available for texts and phone calls – fear of missing out was one reported concern that came up in the study. Distraction techniques could help. “Some people noted that one of the reasons they went back on social media was because they couldn’t find an alternative activity to distract them. If you’re taking a detox, try to replace it with something – seeing people in real life, that type of thing.”
When Biruk was trying to leave Twitter, she counted down the 30 days it would take to lose the chance to reactivate her account with a cross each morning. “I remember on the 30th day putting that ‘X’ and being relieved – my account is gone and there’s no going back,” she says. That was three years ago. Now, she says, “I get to experience myself as is, without all the noise, without other people’s lives constantly in my face, but also I don’t try to constantly put myself in other people’s faces. It’s like a private existence that I really enjoy.”