"Feeling refreshed after a week off Instagram!" reads the caption underneath a gallery of sunny holiday snaps taken on a recent internet-free vacation. In 2019, well-publicised digital detoxes like this are two a penny on platforms like Instagram, a service we know all too well can be bad for us.
It’s not new news that the average adult picks up their smartphone 221 times a day and spends 12 hours of their week using social media. Neither is it new news that social media can negatively impact your health. Beyond disrupting your sleep, shrinking your attention span and causing tech neck, it can play havoc with your mental health, with research indicating that social media can increase loneliness and symptoms of depression. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, Instagram ranks worst in terms of anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying and body image.
I spend a lot of time on my own working at home and while the lack of human interaction can send me into a tailspin on a bad day (cue the dramatic existential crisis), social media, in particular Instagram, has a way of aggravating it further. Instagram can often feel like a showreel of accomplishments I haven’t achieved. Objectively, I can see that Instagram is merely a very small snippet of someone’s life but it’s hard not to fall down the dreaded comparison trap.
My habit isn’t that bad (iPhone screen time tells me I spend between 30 minutes and an hour a day on social media on my phone) but without the apps I know I’m less distracted, more productive and clearer in the head. I have little self-control and if the apps are there, I know I will scroll through them. Hardly surprising, considering they are designed to be addictive.
But when so much of our lives is intrinsically linked to these platforms — whether it’s for work, communication or keeping up with news — quitting social media completely isn’t an option for many. Enter: social media fasting. An approach to combat the struggle with scrolling self-control, it involves deleting social media apps off your phone and re-downloading each week to check in and update your feed.
Deleting my accounts entirely, as much as I’d like to, is not feasible as I need to use them for work, which is why this particular method of cutting down appealed to me. After reaping the benefits when dabbling with detoxing over a few weekends and holidays, I started to apply a similar approach for working weeks at home. Firstly by putting my phone in airplane mode for set times when working, then deleting social media apps altogether for whole days at a time. Noticing an improvement to my productivity and sanity, I now make a habit of deleting the apps for the majority of the week, downloading to upload and check in every couple of days.
I’m not the only one who’s discovered benefits to setting strict boundaries with social media. Natalia, a 24-year-old fashion blogger with a large Instagram following, regularly deletes the app over weekends for a better work-life balance. "When the app is downloaded I often end up ignoring my surroundings or the people I’m with. Deleting it for a short while allows me to enjoy myself and do things that aren’t shown on social media. I need that break for my mental health and to avoid feeling overwhelmed."
It’s not just those who work online who are taking fasting breaks from social media. Roberta, a 27-year-old actress, downloads the app once a day and then deletes it to stop time-wasting. "I was sick of the amount of time I was spending on my phone. With Instagram installed I can easily spend five or six hours a day on the app without even noticing but by deleting it that goes down to about one or two hours." Similarly, Emma, a 29-year-old TV producer, wanted to use her time more efficiently and cut back on mindless scrolling so implemented a system where she only downloads Instagram on Sundays. "I kept noticing I would be watching TV while scrolling and not properly engaging in either screen. It feels like it’s turning my brain to mush and I want to read more books again."
Jess, 32, a writer, deletes Instagram each weekend. "I know that I’m particularly susceptible to FOMO and feeling lonely when I’m not surrounded by people like I am during the week, and seeing acquaintances out doing something fun on social media while I’m trying to have a sensible and productive weekend makes me feel like I’ve failed," she tells me. Deleting the app from Friday to Monday, she says, lets her be the boss of those two days off and stick to her original plans.
When I speak to Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist, she applauds the idea: "When we give up anything we allow the space for self-observation. Taking a step back from social media provides the opportunity to observe any feelings of anxiety and give ourselves a sense of what that behaviour serves. That can only be a good thing."
To succeed in cutting down your usage, Dr Touroni advises being clear on your motivations (i.e. the negative consequences of overindulging in social media) and finding a habit to replace the scrolling (e.g. reading, talking or stretching). Discovering a schedule that works for you is also key. "If there is a set time or day which you’ve allocated to stay off social media, this will help to make it part of your routine. However, if you’re particularly sick of scrolling through social media one day, there is nothing to stop a spontaneous day offline," psychologist Dr Mark Winwood told me.
There can be a downside to social media fasting though and Dr Touroni cautions against getting stuck in a delete-binge-delete cycle. This is something I’ve definitely noticed; if you’ve been off social media for a few days, it can feel like there’s an overwhelming amount to catch up on when you return.
However, as Dr Winwood points out, it’s all about small steps and not being too hard on yourself. "A 'relapse' into a behaviour you’re trying to change doesn’t mean failure. The key to success is being kind to yourself." After all, with social media evolving so quickly, working out how best to use it is a steep learning curve. Everyone is making it up as they go along, even if it doesn’t look like it.