There’s one line from Twitter power user Chrissy Teigen’s latest mea culpa that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Teigen, who recently returned to the platform less than a month after announcing she was quitting it forever, tweeted an apology to media personality Courtney Stodden, who had accused her of harassing them online when they were just 16 years old.
"I’m mortified and sad at who I used to be," Teigen wrote to her 13.6 million followers last week. "I was an insecure, attention seeking troll. I am ashamed and completely embarrassed at my behavior but that is nothing compared to how I made Courtney feel."
It was the next bit, though, that’s been haunting me: "I have worked so hard to give you guys joy and be beloved and the feeling of letting you down is nearly unbearable.” There’s something deeply telling about Teigen’s admission that she works hard to “be beloved” — which, as writer Bolu Babalola notes, “is not the same as working to be a good person.”
The vast majority of people on social media aren’t mega celebrities attempting to charm ginormous audiences while also carrying on strange and vicious vendettas. But Teigen’s failure to leave a site that makes her feel terrible — and her bald-faced attempts to “be beloved,” which tend to backfire spectacularly — are emblematic of how a lot of people have felt about social media lately, and especially over this past year.
The pandemic has robbed us of many months’ worth of precious IRL moments with our loved ones, making us more reliant on the internet for community and connection than ever before. When you’re unable to travel to see family or friends on other sides of the country or the globe for months on end, WhatsApp group chats and weekly Zoom calls have become essential tools during a lonely and terrifying time.
But being so dependent on our devices also comes at a cost. Having to socialize almost entirely online has meant most of us now know far more than we’d like to about our neighbors’ and old classmates’ bad political opinions — not to mention their clandestine indoor parties and questionable pandemic vacations. And, to the detriment of our mental health, it has also meant an increase in doomscrolling. Perhaps you’ve used social media to shame others for their careless pandemic behavior; perhaps you’ve been shamed yourself. Meanwhile, throwback features remind us of parts of our past that might be embarrassing or painful: Facebook surfaces a photo of you with your friends in a bar last year, maskless and carefree, and you feel a stab of sadness for how things once were; your iPhone reminds you that you were once married to someone with whom you no longer speak, or that you previously held opinions you’re now ashamed of.
It makes complete sense, then, that some people have decided they’ve had enough.
“After the pandemic, some personal health revelations, and 2020’s political violence, I regretted sharing so much of myself — my traumas, details about my mental health, my explorations of gender, my location, my political views and ideas,” said Lydia M., a 28-year-old in Providence, Rhode Island. “I saw how these things could and probably would be used against people. It was the first time I realized online expression could potentially harm me offline, even physically. It scared me.”
“As we grow and change, we realize that documenting our lives on social media can be a double-edged sword."
Lydia is one of over 100 people who responded to a recent BuzzFeed News questionnaire about how our social media habits have changed during the pandemic. “With Trump and social media and living in a heavily conservative area, I had a suicidal breakdown over summer 2020,” said Jo Ramz, a Latinx activist, mom, and small business owner in Los Angeles. “When a fracturing happened with an activism group I was running [on social media] over problems with intersectionality — white voices were trying to overpower marginalized people — it was the last straw.” Ramz, 37, deleted all her social media accounts around November 2020. “I feel really good about it.”
“As we grow and change, we realize that documenting our lives on social media can be a double-edged sword,” said Saratoga Schaefer, a sobriety and mental health activist in Milwaukee. “You can literally see how far you've come, but it can also stir up real feelings of regret and nostalgia.” They almost exclusively use Instagram now, having stepped away from the “toxic hellhole” of Twitter.
Schaefer sees the upside of sharing personal milestones; they posted about being one year sober last summer. “I was extremely proud of it, and I know that the drinking rates and alcohol abuse issues have increased during the pandemic,” they said. “I want people to know that things CAN get better.” But they’ve also been careful to archive photos from their past that didn’t represent who they’d like to be now. “That includes pictures of exes, toxic friends, and photos of myself drunk or drinking. It was incredibly empowering to put those images firmly where they belong — in the past,” they said. “It's time to look forward.” They don’t want to forget where they came from, but, they added, “I don't want [my past] hanging around my neck like a cursed necklace, either.”
Sulé, who lives in South Africa, deleted the Facebook and Instagram apps from her phone, but her profiles still exist. Over the last year, she said, “I got my first job after graduating, moved to a new city & got a boyfriend. Nothing was posted on social media. I believe in keeping most of my life private to avoid judgment — and I also feel like I am running behind all my online friends.” Even a lighthearted life update can feel like a form of competition: Who has the best job? The biggest house? The most beautiful family?
Simply posting a life update for the sheer joy of it — rather than trying to convince other people how happy and cool and fun you are — has lost its luster lately. “2020 was a weird year to boast about accomplishments online when there was so much sadness and chaos happening,” said Mark Seeley, a 35-year-old New Yorker, who worried about whether to share the news that he and his husband bought a house upstate. They did end up posting about it on social media but were careful with their framing. “We didn't want people to think we were leaving NYC because it was 'dead' (it is not),” he said. He added that they tried to be conscious of the fact that they were fortunate enough to buy a house during a year when many people lost jobs.
Many respondents said they avoided sharing any good news altogether, worried that it could come across as insensitive during a year of so much loss. Plus, they wanted to avoid any judgment. “I’ve been with my boyfriend for a year now,” said Nancy Miranda, a 29-year-old from Huntington Beach, California. “We met through Bumble right before the pandemic and went on a date the weekend before the shutdown. We lived an hour away from each other at the time. I continued to sneak out and drive to his city during the pandemic lockdown. [Being] in a relationship was something I would have shared prior to the pandemic, but I felt guilty sneaking out and knew I would receive judgment from my followers. We live together now, and I’ve yet to share that on my social media.”
Others, like Ashley F. in Connecticut, 35, have withheld news — in her case, that she’s expecting her second child — because she realized “social media platforms do nothing but spread misinformation.”
She wrote, “I have actually deleted my Facebook recently because I don't want to take part in an organization that is only looking out for itself and takes literally zero responsibility for its impact on this planet.”
A lot of people have been examining why they’re compelled to post anything in the first place. Mary Piaskowski from Kensington, Maryland, recently got accepted into a PhD program. She didn’t share the news online, she said, because “I no longer think people on social media care about me or my life.” She added, “I have been off of Instagram since February. Before, I would have shared this information as soon as I got accepted. I would have stared at my post for days as likes came in.” During a time when it can feel like anything from a casual afternoon hangout to a major life event didn’t even really happen if it’s not shared online — and rewarded with dopamine hits of shares and likes — more people are attempting to see those events themselves as their own reward.
Trying to live in the moment isn’t just difficult because so many of us are prone to documenting our days, our phones and social media apps are also intent on continually resurfacing aspects of our past. While some respondents said they were happy to have the reminders (one mentioned loving comments popping up from her late grandmother — “she was hilarious!”), others had more mixed or flat-out negative feelings.
Seeing versions of ourselves from 5 or 10 years ago can be cringey, which is why a lot of respondents have purged old posts altogether. Ashlee Burke from Boston, who's in her late 20s, said she made her old Facebook photo albums private because they’re embarrassing, not because they showed any illegal activity or anything — “unless it’s illegal to be the most embarrassing teenager on the face of the Earth.”
But some old posts can be more painful. “Every now and then I will get a News Feed notification of certain events that happened to me in the past while suffering from an eating disorder, and it just reminds me of how far I've come in my journey through recovery and the tremendous progress I've made,” said Brooke Jensen, 23, who lives in Canada. “Although, like many things, I see it as a blessing and a curse. … Yeah, it shows my success, but from someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body image issues, I can be envious of how I once looked.”
Even a lighthearted life update can feel like a form of competition: Who has the best job? The biggest house? The most beautiful family?
Those who are still active or semi-active on social media, even if they’re trying to cut back, cite social connections and the ability to signal-boost issues they care about. Schaefer, who shares updates about their sobriety journey, is joined in spreading awareness online by people like Sapna Arora, a 23-year-old living in Dubai, where she works in strategy and communications. After her mother died of COVID, Arora kept the tragic news private for a couple days, she said, before eventually sharing it on social media.
“My mother is everything to me, and I lost her to this pandemic,” she said. “I wanted to share my sheer pain and anguish with those who still thought it wasn't a serious disease or that they didn't need to get vaxxed or wear a mask or to those idiots who thought this was a whole conspiracy. It's not a conspiracy. People are dying. I'm Indian. You all can see what's happening in my country when you choose to be casual in a pandemic. We couldn't save my mother, but you all can.”
Suzanne Alexander from Calgary has C-PTSD and depression and is now on long-term disability leave. “The pandemic has made me more sure about my choices to be honest and public about aspects of my disability and aiming to shine a light on the lived experiences of mental health,” she said. At the same time, she added, “I also think the pandemic has made me more lonely and made me seek gratification from social media in a way that got unhealthy. I deleted the Facebook app from my phone and barely go on it anymore. I also use Snapchat much less.”
Many people have cut entire platforms out of their lives — Twitter and Facebook are common ones — but still use others, like Reddit, Instagram, or TikTok, where millions have sought refuge from the chaos and volatility elsewhere on the internet. There are even fewer who’ve left all social media platforms, but they cite positive changes in their mood and worldview.
“I stopped using social media over the pandemic and I realized a few things,” said Ramz. “I have to work differently and harder to make the networking connections to keep up my activism, but those connections are richer. I have to work harder at making the time to connect socially with family (via text or video or regular phone calls), but it's better quality. I have to be creative with keeping up with friends and helping my kids keep up with friends without social media, but, again, the quality is so much better. I also have ADHD and have to work harder at remembering to keep up with all these people since I have to be more active in the relationship, whereas with social media I could be self-centered and passive.”
Those who have left social media entirely don’t necessarily think it needs to be forever. Because there are good things — great things — about connecting with people from all over the world.
“I miss expressing myself. I miss having online friends,” Lydia said. “But I feel I can’t engage with these platforms at all without exposing myself to toxic energy, compulsive scrolling, and privacy issues.” She’d return if given the opportunity to have a relationship with social media that’s “expressive, choice-based, and [lets her] have genuine social relationships without feeling pressured, watched, or exploited.”
The question remains whether that will ever really be possible. ●