Instagram it, or it didn’t happen. This is like the modern equivalent of the old philosophical brain teaser: ‘If a tree falls in a forest and nobody’s there to see it does it make a sound?’
We express ourselves in 140 characters or less and showcase what we’ve been up to within the neat confines of an Instagram square.
Today many of us document everything we do (well, the cool stuff, the stuff we’re proud of) online. We take pics, make it look a little bit better than it actually did and watch the likes rack up. According to ONS statistics, the UK has the highest number of social media users in the EU, the majority of them being in the South East.
This is all still relatively new technology and there have long been concerns about the impact of social media on our mental health. It feels like there’s always a new study which says that social media is turning us into miserable, anxious narcissists, like this new research from the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, which found that people who were forced to quit Facebook cold turkey for a week as part of a study felt 55% less stressed than those who continued to use it as normal.
While these findings aren’t exactly revelatory, there does seem to be a particularly noticeable backlash against the nature of online life at the moment.
Two weeks ago 18-year-old Australian Essena O’Neill caused a media storm by committing what has been rather crudely termed ‘social media suicide’. She exposed the fakery and falsehood behind her Instagram life before deleting her account and posting a video online to explain her decision.
Essena isn’t alone. Recently, Lena Dunham announced that she was leaving Twitter because she felt the space had become too negative, and that from here on in, her account would be managed by her team.
According to reports, Facebook is falling in popularity among teenage users aged 13 to 17. Fifity five per cent of Facebook messenger users are 37 or under, while 86% of Snapchat’s user base is under this age. Clearly there’s something going on here: Facebook tried to buy Snapchat last year and had their offer refused.
Young people today are more likely to use Instagram and Snapchat than Facebook or Twitter.
Official figures also suggest that more than 11 million young people have left Facebook since 2011.
So, if a backlash is afoot, then it can hardly be surprising. In the age of overexposure, there’s certainly an appeal in going offline. Are things becoming more about capturing moments than sharing ‘what’s on your mind’ as Facebook asks us to do?
Snapchat’s popularity among teens could demonstrate a desire for less permanent and personal ways of expressing ourselves online, indicating that we’re becoming more cautious about what we share. The rise of Instagram, an app which is more about what you’re doing and where you’re going than what you’re thinking or feeling, also seems to confirm this.
While events like last weekend’s terrorist attacks in Paris demonstrate the many positive ways in which social media can be used in support, solidarity or just to stay in touch with loved ones, do you ever think your life might be better without it?
Do you ever wake up after a night out and wish you hadn’t posted quite so many selfies? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material in your newsfeed? Have you ever given yourself a stern talking to after realising you’ve actually been mindlessly scrolling and stalking Instagram for an hour? Just me? I think not.
We spoke to young people who’ve deleted – or resisted the temptation to ever sign up to social media – to find out what a Facebook-free life is really like.
Jenny deleted Instagram three years ago. One day she caught herself scrolling through her feed and says, ‘It felt like I was going through an endless list of photos just because they were there and I’d stopped being able to really see them.’
She felt like she was wasting her time. ‘Scrolling through Instagram is a bit like picking up a copy of Vogue in a doctor’s waiting room. You just flick through and it’s all adverts – I wasn’t really getting anything from it.’
Does she worry about the impact that Instagram is having on us? ‘I feel like it has just replaced fashion magazines as the new thing to look at. When I was a teenager, I read Elle and Vogue. It’s not necessarily more or less damaging than that as long as everyone knows that it’s fake, right?
‘Whatever problems are on Instagram for young women already exist, those problems have been around for decades. It’s more accessible now though, I guess.’
Has she been suffering from FOMO since she deleted her account? ‘Actually, when I had it I felt like I was missing out more, but as soon as you get rid of something, you realise you don’t actually need it for anything at all.’
Jenny says she feels like she has a better relationship with her phone now, it’s not the first thing she looks at in the morning or the last thing at night.
She has more time, she reads more. She also says on nights out she feels like she’s more present because she doesn’t constantly photograph everything, trying to get that perfect drunk selfie.
Mark has never had Instagram. In his first week at uni a friend made him a Facebook account that he’s never really used. He feels like he’s missing out occasionally, but not enough to persuade him to go online.
‘Right from the beginning I wasn’t really into it. I remember at the time it all just seemed like a bit of an arms race, like everyone wanted to get as many mates as they could as quickly as possible. You can have like 800 mates, but who are you actually picking up the phone to?’
Of his brief stint on Facebook he says, ‘Everything seemed a bit exaggerated and I think that’s true, especially for Instagram. It’s everyone trying to be an exaggerated version of themselves and it becomes a bit tedious.’
He says, in particular, it was his ex-girlfriend constantly posting, being able to see what she was up to and how many people she was adding that put him off. ‘I don’t want to know’, he says.
Mark says he scrolls through his phone much less than his mates, but they share his point of view. ‘When when we go for a meal, we all put our phones in the middle of the table to stop everyone using them. We play a little game – the first person to take their phone from the pile and use it has to buy the drinks.’
Hilla has Facebook but doesn’t really use it. She doesn’t have Twitter and she’s never had Instagram.
‘There’s something I find a bit irritating about Instagram’, she says, ‘just the way that people now have to take photos at every single dinner that they go to, plus the whole selfie thing – selfie mania – which I think is so unhealthy.’
Why? It’s the ‘selfie thing’ in particular she says. ‘When I see people travelling alone, pouting and taking selfies in front of the fountain or whatever, I do kind of feel like there’s a pretence there. In order to take the selfie, there must be something lacking from your present situation, like are you lonely and seeking some kind of validation from the web?’
Does she feel like she’s ever missing out by not having it? ‘Sometimes.’ She confesses that her friends let her scroll vicariously through their accounts on occasion. ‘When I’m on holiday I will peep over other people’s shoulders. It’s quite fun seeing their pictures. If anyone takes a picture of me I’m like, ahhhh how many people have liked it, but I’d hate to have that as an ongoing thing in my life!’
She points out that her mates don’t really use it either these days, though. ‘The only people I know who have it really are my sister and my boyfriend’, she says, ‘and they don’t really use it anymore, anyway.’
Jess has Facebook but she’s not really active and has never had Instagram and doesn’t feel like she’s missing out in the slightest. For her, it’s mostly about privacy.
She says she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out on Instagram. ‘Occasionally, somebody will tell me Craig David’s posted something funny and I’ll take a look at their account, but on the whole what celebrities are doing is of no interest to me. I don’t know who most of them are.’
She uses the Facebook messenger app more than anything, she says. ‘I use Facebook to send messages to people, but I don’t post or update my status ever. I don’t want to tell everyone what’s going on in my life. I use WhatsApp a lot – if I want to send photos to my friends I’ll do it on WhatsApp.’
Jess occasionally posts photos when on holiday, but the majority of stuff on her wall are things that she’s been tagged in. She is effectively a ghost user, a lurker.
She stopped looking at her newsfeed because she started to find seeing updates from people she hadn’t seen for years a bit off. ‘I have friends on my newsfeed, for instance, someone I haven’t seen for six years might have had a baby and I know when it took its first steps. Yet I’ve never met this baby – it’s weird!’
She questions why people post stuff online. ‘It’s like there’s a fear that if nobody responds then nobody is interested in what you have to say. I don’t need to put myself through that. I don’t need self validation. I’m happy in what I do.’
Finally, Phil. He’s recently made an exit from Facebook and never had Instagram. ‘It was probably about five or six months ago, I came to the conclusion that Facebook was just stressing me out,’ he says. ‘Every time I went on it my newsfeed was like having this jet of shit sprayed in my face, everything seemed to be an advert. Even things my friends were sharing were just adverts and clickbait.’
He says he realised he would still see everyone he actually wanted to hang out with. ‘I’d rather phone them up or just email them,’ he says.
Does he worry more generally about what social media is doing to us? ‘It’s just an echo chamber, it indulges all your most narcissistic fantasies,’ he says. ‘You put something up and get a hundred likes and you’re like, “Wow, a hundred likes”, but actually that’s not that many people!
‘One of the things that really pissed me off was that even if interesting things were being communicated on there, the majority of it was just narcissism. I was guilty of it myself. You look at the image you’re presenting to the world, and I confess to doing this, I’d look at my own profile. I realised it’s just an unbelievably crap way to spend my time – looking at pictures of myself!!!’
It’s easy, and arguably important, to be cynical about social media. My generation has watched it evolve from the get go while those just a few years younger have grown up online.
I remember being a teenager before smartphones and social media. It was just as much of a popularity contest as Instagram is now, although one fuelled by three-way landline phone calls and MSN messenger instead of selfies and likes. At the end of the day, social media is just real life writ large and sped up: magnified, curated and edited.
My nan used to tell me that watching TV would make me ‘square eyed’ and ‘fry my brain’, but neither has happened, yet. Just as you shouldn’t sit in front of the TV all weekend, you shouldn’t scroll your life away online. We should check ourselves and be aware that what we see online is all a performance. We must remember that real life continues offline and it’s not always pretty.
But, it hasn’t all been bad, and it’s important to remember that. Facebook allows us to stay in touch with friends and family across the world, Instagram can actually be quite a nice way of seeing what people are doing in places you’ve never been, and as the terrible events of the last few days demonstrate, Twitter is a very useful news resource.
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Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.