Quitting Social Media May Actually Help Calm Your Broken Online Brain

“I am so happy with my decision — it was one of the best forms of self-care I practiced with myself this year.”

Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter are super popular — 84% of American adults report using at least one social media platform. 

However, for better or worse, people spend a lot of time on these apps. About one-third of adults in the US say they are online “almost constantly.” As a result of excessive use, people who spend more time online have increased feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress and experience fewer face-to-face interactions, according to one research analysis.

But some people are choosing to deactivate and walk away. We asked people why and whether it was just a short-term break or a new, social media-free way of living. From the 145 responses we received at BuzzFeed News, most people said they were deactivating and not returning, despite the FOMO. 

Whether it’s a result of doomscrolling, comparing themselves to other users, or creating the perfect curated feed, social media users are prioritizing their mental health. 

For some of the people we talked to, quitting one platform was enough to see an impact on self-esteem and an increase in IRL connection. Others deactivated from all social platforms, which they said helped to reduce their anxiety and depression. 

Those who did return to the platforms said they minimized content consumption to allow for a better experience, including decreased levels of anxiety and increased self-esteem. 

Here are the big reasons people gave for walking away, and the health benefits they experienced from their break — either short-term or permanent — from social media.

Less doomscrolling and media overload 

Amanda Capriato, 28, from Ohio, decided to delete Twitter the night before Roe v. Wade was overturned, and she hasn’t returned to the app since June 2022. 

“The leak of the Supreme Court draft [announcing that Roe was] being overturned had me constantly checking the app for updates and arguing with people I didn't even know,” Capriato told BuzzFeed News. “My anxiety was through the roof about the impending doom of the loss of rights for women everywhere, and Twitter was just adding fuel to the fire. I decided that if social media was not a way for me to spread awareness or help others, then I wouldn't use it. I made a personal commitment to only use social media apps to help others or myself.” 

For many, news on apps was the deciding factor. Media overload, or the influx of news from social media, added to their emotional distress. Around half of adults in the US get their news from social media apps or websites, with 36% regularly using Facebook as a source. Other sources for news consumption were YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. 

According to the American Psychological Association, 73% of Americans reported feeling overwhelmed by news events, including those related to economic instability, racial injustice, and the pandemic. 

Dr. Lalitaa Suglani, a psychologist based in Birmingham, UK, told BuzzFeed News that an influx of information, specifically in news content, can affect a person’s mental health by increasing stress, anxiety, and sadness.

“Being overwhelmed in news also has the potential to exacerbate symptoms that you may currently be presenting with, hence why people can react differently,” Suglani said. “It can also increase worry in other areas of our life because it shapes the experiences we are having with the world, leading us to feel hopeless, helpless, and lacking in motivation. As we are consumed by an overload of negative events and news, it can cause us to view the world with a sense of cynicism.”

Mia Steinberg, 33, from British Columbia, Canada, deleted her Facebook page as a result of anxiety surrounding news on the platforms. Despite spending time on other apps like Twitter, Discord, and Slack, she told BuzzFeed News that her anxiety was linked specifically to her engagement on her Facebook account. 

“I've been conscious of the ways that social media is structured to play on our worst emotional tendencies and increase anxiety/anger/engagement; it has been incredibly freeing to reclaim those emotions for myself,” Steinberg said. “I take great care to curate my existing social media so that I am able to consent to viewing news or world events that may be emotionally difficult to process, and I find myself much calmer and happier because my emotions are not being yanked around for clicks. Every time more news comes out on Facebook's failures and deficiencies, I think, Whew! Dodged that bullet.”

Steinberg added that she now uses Slack to chat with close friends and that her deactivating her social media accounts hasn’t affected her IRL relationships. 

“There have been a couple of times when it would have been easier to chat with someone on Messenger, and I've entirely missed out on Facebook Marketplace as a service, but honestly that's been about it!” she said. “I haven't returned to Facebook, and I doubt I ever will.” 

Brent Shipes, 32, from California, suspended his Facebook account for a few months, deciding to fully delete the app after returning for a short time, describing his experience as “doomscrolling.” 

The final straw for Shipes was the events and reactions surrounding the Jan. 6 riots in 2021. 

“I had a friend post about how it was worrying to him and that he was scared for the country, and that it was terrifying that people would be so loyal to Trump as to overthrow the government and the election process,” Shipes told BuzzFeed News. 

Shipes added that he now is less likely to doomscroll and that he judges people’s posts less on other platforms. 

A frequent monitoring of the news can trick people into thinking that they’re protecting themselves from bad news by being more prepared and informed. However, doomscrolling that involves the relentless consumption of negative news can increase distress, anxiety, and depression. 

Less anxiety from endless comparison

Social comparison, or comparing oneself to an idealized version of someone on social media, increases the belief that others on the app are living happier and better lives than they are. As a result, comparisons can lead to low self-esteem, resentment, and envy, resulting in negative psychological outcomes like depression. 

“Comparisons made on social media are more likely to be upward, as many users tend to present an idealized version of themselves and their lives — we only see a snapshot of what someone has chosen to share,” Suglani said. “This can lead people to believe that others are 'happier' and living a better life and make people believe they also need to be this way to have the same feeling.” 

Emma, 24, from Virginia, told BuzzFeed News that she deleted her Instagram, hoping to eliminate some bad habits and be more present and authentic with the people she keeps in touch with. “I first deleted my Instagram because I couldn’t resist sad-stalking my ex on there, and it was really bad for my mental health. But once I deleted it I realized how much lighter I felt in general without having to navigate all of those comparison traps I’d often fall into by looking at other people's happy and successful lives,” Emma said.

“I also came to realize how much of my IG posting was performative and fake,” she added. “I was posting to show people I haven’t spoken to in years just how adventurous, loved, (insert adjective here) I am. I’m over him now, but truthfully don’t feel any need to go back to my old doomscrolling ways.”

Lauren, 27, from New York City, deleted her personal Facebook and Instagram account for similar reasons. “I deleted because I found myself having really bad comparison issues with people I knew from high school, and FOMO. It was just really bad for my brain to sit on there and see people who I perceived to be having more fun than me, enjoying their lives, or making career advancements that I was not quite experiencing myself.” 

Despite feeling more disconnected from friends, she shared that she has felt much better since deleting the apps. 

“Benefits are endless!” she said. “I am not spending as much time online, I don't compare myself to as many people anymore, I am just hanging out and living my life and not worried that I am not doing enough in my own life.” 

Reduce the negative impact on body image 

Ashley Steele, 22, from Pennsylvania, says she used to be “obsessed” with Instagram, consistently scrolling on the app for an hour or two each day, sometimes consecutively, she tells BuzzFeed News. By the end of July 2022, she deleted the app and hasn’t redownloaded it despite feeling out of the loop on news. 

“I would find myself doomscrolling, comparing myself and my body to other people, and taking in way too much information every single day,” she said. 

Since deactivating, Steele said, she’s felt less anxiety overall and better body image. 

“I spent more time off my phone and more time in the real world, and I had a lot less anxiety related to social media like: What if people find my content weird? What if I don't get enough likes? What if the aesthetic I'm showing off doesn't match who people think I am? Am I trying too hard?” Steele said. “Stuff like that was just making the app a miserable experience for me, and wasn't worth it in the end.” 

Eliminate the pressure to curate a “perfect image”  

Like other social media users, Jordan, 25, from California, wanted to curate an Instagram capturing her best moments — authentic or not. 

“In the months leading up to my wedding in October, I became obsessed with my own Instagram feed,” Jordan said. “I wanted my wedding to appear perfect, especially when compared to other weddings I saw on Instagram. I would scroll Reels endlessly, and it took up so much time and brain space. Immediately after I posted my wedding photos, two days after my wedding, I deleted the app. I had no idea why I felt so trapped by [having to make] that one post. Once it was over, it was like I didn’t care anymore. And I realized I probably should have never cared in the first place.”

One of the most important activities on social platforms is the act of self-presentation, which motivates users to be socially desirable, receive feedback through likes and comments, and align themselves with people on the platform. 

Our online behavior can relate to our sense of self-worth offline — it is important to note that this is not true for everyone,” Suglani said. “People tend towards presenting a socially desirable, positive self-view to others when online, as it can give individuals an increase in self-esteem. If we struggle with our sense of self-worth offline, chances are we are posting and seeking external validation. This can be harmful as we can end up relying on likes and comments that people make on our posts to feel 'good enough.'”

According to studies on self-presentation and social media, seeking authenticity through true and false self-presentation is related to mental health. People who showed the “best version of themselves” on the platforms, creating a false self-presentation, had low self-esteem and higher levels of social anxiety. Conversely, true self-presentation, including presenting personal experience rather than the ideal version of themselves, increased self-esteem. 

Karly, 27, from Ohio, deactivated all her social media accounts to strengthen her relationships and remove the curated content on her profiles. “When my husband and I are out to eat, traveling, or hanging out with friends, there isn't pressure to capture the perfect picture to show everyone else who wasn't there how great it was. We can actually just live in the moment,” Karly said. “I feel like life is less of a competition and the feeling of having to be the best version of myself at all times is gone.”

Feeling left out

Social media can contribute to feelings of loneliness, rage, and social inferiority. However, some people who do leave the platforms end up coming back because they feel like they are missing out on news, connections, and events that could be socially rewarding.

Molly Fields, 38, from Indiana, experienced FOMO after deleting all her social media accounts, including Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Facebook. “I didn't know what anyone was doing,” Fields said. “Suddenly, I had no opinions. I didn't have any idea what anyone did so I couldn't be emotionally involved in what I wasn't invited to.  I was addicted and didn't know it until it was gone. I missed what I thought drove me away from social media in the first place.” 

Anastasia Nelson, 30, from New York City, was feeling out of the loop on social media lingo after deleting Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook, causing FOMO when talking with her family members. “They would use certain slang, terminology, that I had to ask the definition for or whip my phone out to quickly google and pretend I knew. Cheugy? Sus? GRWM? Speak English!” Nelson said. 

You don’t have to delete all your socials for your mental health, Carolyn Rubenstein, a licensed psychologist based in Boca Raton, Florida, told BuzzFeed News. She shared these practical tips:

  1. Actively monitor your use of social media. 
  2. Unfollow accounts that don’t align with your intentions. 
  3. Mute notifications rather than using automatic reminders. 
  4. Require passwords for each time you log in.
  5. Plan regular breaks. 
  6. If you plan on taking a break from social media, changes don’t have to be drastic. 

“If you return to social media, set clear intentions. Some questions to help you explore: How and why do you want to engage with social media?” Rubenstein said. “How do you want to feel through this engagement? What do you want to limit for yourself?”

Some people told us they might never go back or only slowly integrate social media back into their lives in a limited way. “I am so happy with my decision,” Steele said. “It was one of the best forms of self-care I practiced with myself this year.”

Others noted that they don’t hate social media, but it just doesn’t work for them right now, and they’d like to see platforms change before they’d consider coming back.

“I am not against social media. I believe it has done wonders for globalization, small businesses, and entrepreneurs. However, I do believe for myself, at least, it made me an individual I did not enjoy and did not recognize,” Nelson said. “Would I go back? Potentially, with meaningful changes to the platforms, yes.”

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