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In College, I Unplugged from Social Media. Here’s What I Learned.

In sixth grade, I downloaded Facebook. My peers convinced me that only people with a lot of Facebook friends were cool, so when I first joined, I spent hours adding “friends.” In eighth grade, my first Instagram post got 7 “likes.” It was exciting, at first, but soon I felt like there was no choice but to delete the app from my phone, once my friends started touting their own more impressive “like” counts. It was like we’d all become data-driven content strategists, studying the metrics of social posts.

I slowly started to value social media presence as the ultimate indicator of popularity, and I created my own posts for what people liked to see, rather than what I liked to do. I did stuff just to post it, working overtime to maintain an image that wasn’t true to myself. That showed me that social media can become addictive and encourage people to change themselves into what they think the world wants. 

When I first arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I didn’t feel like I fit in. I was alone, hundreds of miles from home in New Jersey. So, once again, I started using social media to show others that I did cool things and knew cool people. I became dependent on getting the attention of other people to help fulfill my own happiness. Every time I went out, I felt pressure to post to social media and tell the whole world.

In the summer after my sophomore year, I vowed to stay off social media for one week. I removed Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media apps from my phone. I did this initially only because a friend recommended it–not because I had an actual goal in mind. At first, I struggled. I can’t tell you how many times I checked my phone, only to realize the apps weren’t there. I wondered what my friends were doing all the time, now that I couldn’t check the apps. But the experiment went so well for the first week that I decided to stay off for the rest of my summer course. Here are a few takeaways.

First, I realized how often I checked my phone for no reason. For the first few days, at least twice every 20 minutes I checked my phone only to realize there were no social media apps.  No timelines to scroll, or pictures to “like.” Before my social media detox, a quick glance at my phone had often turned into a 10-minute distraction and then a 45-minute adventure. It was clear that I’d spent too much time stalking the lives of other people–wasting time that I could’ve been using for myself. 

“I watched less news and was generally happier. The social media detox literally paid off: I earned a B+ in my summer course.”

Mark Morrison Jr., author.

Without the pressure of social media, I got back to really living. Over the summer, I read at least three books a month. It was easier to go to bed at 10:30p.m., which in turn made it easier to wake up at 6:15 the next morning and run–which I loved doing. I watched less news and was generally happier, corresponding with the findings of a new study. The social media detox literally paid off: I earned a B+ in my summer course.

Here’s what else I learned: Not all of your social media friends are your real friends. All of the people you interact with online everyday won’t all realize that you’re suddenly missing. I started to distinguish the people who thought about me when I didn’t make it easy for them from those who just happened to follow me on an app. In the end, it turned out that I needed social more than I wanted it. Unplugging let me focus on myself, but it took me out of the world. I did want to be in digital touch with my real friends.

That made me realize the benefits of social media: There are many opportunities and networks that can only be gained through social. I found my current job as a referee at my school on Instagram. I can’t imagine how many close friends I wouldn’t have met without social media. One key conclusion I’ve reached is that anyone who isn’t on social media is behind the curve. It’s just a matter of how much time you spend doing it.

All I need is a balance between staying involved and going too far. What I really want is to be disciplined enough to live that same, simple way with social media. I doubt I’ll ditch social media entirely. There’s no need to put arbitrary limits on phone usage. I’m going to live without holding back, but having learned what life without social media is like, I’ve started to use it far less.

Mark Morrison Jr. is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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