Sam Holstein

How Social Media Gaslights You Into Ruining Your Mental Health

How Social Media Gaslights You Into Ruining Your Mental Health

“A fish doesn’t know it’s in water.”

My father said this to me frequently when I was young. A fish doesn’t know it’s in water — and like fish, we don’t know we’re in water either. Lifelong Los Angeles natives think heavy traffic is normal, poor people think a perpetual fear of losing one’s job is normal, and mentally ill teenagers think suicidal depression is normal. We don’t know what we’re swimming in when we’re swimming in it.

Well, dear reader, when’s the last time you weren’t swimming in social media?

No, that 30-day detox where you deleted the apps off your phone and only checked on your laptop once or twice a week doesn’t count. I mean, when was the last time you were free?

When is the last time your accounts didn’t exist, you didn’t click on links, and you didn’t even visit parts of the internet that don’t require a social media account?

When did you last use text messages to communicate with your friends?

Or, heaven forbid, called them?

If you’re under 35 and haven’t explicitly deleted your social media accounts, you likely don’t know what life is like without social media. I’m 27, and before deleting my social media accounts four-and-some years ago, I’d never lived without social media.

Deleting my accounts felt like coming up for fresh air after a lifetime spent drowning.

I didn’t know deleting my social media would change my life so much when I did it. I deleted my accounts after a bad breakup with a social media addict because I needed to get away from his face for five fucking minutes, and a tickle told me that this wasn’t the only problem social media was creating in my life.

Boy howdy, was I right. Over the next few months and years, my life changed in ways I could never have anticipated, ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible if I’d kept my accounts and merely done annual 30-day detoxes as all the cool sophisticated tech elites recommend.


The first of these changes was that after years of feeling dissociated, I began to return to myself.

Recall the childhood self you had, before social media, that loved to play in the yard, draw, run through the trees, or whatever you loved as a child. It’s so sad how adulthood strips that from you.

Except, it’s not adulthood stripping that from you. It’s (at least partly) social media.

Any old idiot can talk about how the pressure from perfect photos to be perfect people makes you insecure. You know that already. But even exposing yourself to these photos changes what you value as a person.

It’s no surprise that after I quit social media I stopped fussing over my appearance and started to feel a lot better about myself and what I was wearing or how I looked on any given day.

But soon after, my very values about appearance began to change.

Reading all these things makes me sound like a crazy social media addict. But statistically speaking, I was probably less of a social media addict than you. When I used social media, I spent less time on social media than the national average. The national average is six hours daily; I only spent two hours at most. I was a normal, ‘healthy’ social media user like you.

This is the insidious nature of social media. Even limited exposure snakes its way into your mind, changing what you value and tricking you into thinking it’s what you wanted all along.

Now that social media is gone from my life, I’ve reclaimed much of that childhood spark. Last week I stood on the upper rim of the Grand Canyon and felt the wind whip my low-maintenance hair. I left my shitty iPhone 7+ in the car and took photos with my expensive digital camera. It can’t automatically post my photos to Instagram, and I have to spend hours processing them, but it takes amazing photos I’ll cherish for years.

Social media still finds its way through the cracks of my life. My best friend occasionally sends me Tik Tok links, and I watch them. They’re funny, but I can feel even these ten minutes a week warping my perception. My partner (who also doesn’t use social media) sometimes remarks on my new and bizarre sense of humor. And even when I’m not watching Tik Tok, social media culture pervades our conversation choices. I may have quit chasing social media, but social media will never quit chasing me.


The second of these changes is the incredible amount of time I’ve gotten back.

Those three to six hours a day you spend scrolling is time you could spend doing anything else. Anything. Staring at the wall. Giving your mother a phone call. Cleaning the house. Reading fanfiction. Getting high and staring at the sky.

Let’s review the math. Three hours a day (a conservative estimate, as statistics suggest you likely spend more time on social media daily), times 365 days, is 1,095 hours a year. That old Gladwell adage says someone needs 10,000 hours to master something, but he bent the truth a little for his book. The reality is that 1,000 hours is often enough to be proficient at something to the point of being noteworthy. Think about it — if you practiced playing the piano for 1,000 hours, you’d be damn good at it.

This is the cost of your social media habit. You’ve traded all those bucket list items — learning Italian, horseback riding, writing your memoir, painting a 12-foot by 12-foot canvas — for your social media habit.

For fish who are still in the water, this surely sounds dramatic. You use social media on the bus, during boring moments at work, and waiting at the BMV, so it’s not like you could spend that time painting if you wanted, right?

But you don’t notice how you spend an extra 20–40 minutes in bed every morning on social media, nor do you notice the extra 40–60 minutes it takes to fall asleep. You don’t notice you were 30 minutes late meeting with a friend because you were reading something on social media. You could schedule an hour block with yourself in the evening to paint, but you scroll instead. Your phone’s Screen Time function will reveal the truth if you can set your ego to the side long enough to configure it and look.

You also don’t realize that even if you are sitting on the bus, you could be watching YouTube videos about painting techniques. You could be reading books by great artists. You could even be watching funny cat videos. Any of these would leave you more whole than scrolling.

Most of what I, personally, have used my reclaimed time for is not impressive or profitable. I can’t put hiking every trail in my local Colorado state park, hundreds more hours spent with friends, or publishing an 800-page fanfiction series on my resume. But we all know by now the point of living isn’t to turn a profit.

Think about all those things you wish you had more time for. Yes, I’m including self-improvement activities like learning a second language or reading Four Thousand Weeks, but I’m also including leisure activities like browsing fan art and playing Magic the Gathering. You will have more time for all these things by saying goodbye to social media.


The third of these changes is a shocking decrease in the animosity I feel for my fellow man.

I maintain friends along a wide range in the political spectrum, from avowed Marxist Communists to right-wingers who want to see Ron DeSantis as President. Many of these people would not be able to tolerate being in a room with each other because of their preconceived political notions. But from where I’m standing, we’re all the same. From DeSantis supporters to Bernie Bros, all my friends want to build a world where people of all backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, and income levels can live with dignity and freedom. We disagree wildly on the most practical way to achieve these goals, of course, but that’s not the same as not having these goals.

We have forgotten this thanks to internet polarization. And that polarization directly results from algorithms that sort and display content based on engagement driven by strong negative polarizing emotions. I can’t go so far as to say political polarization is the direct result of these algorithms, as polarization has existed at other times in history, but I don’t think we’d be experiencing it now if it weren’t for the algorithms.

This extends beyond the political, too. I feel less threatened by the views and behaviors of others in general. When people make an off-color joke, I don’t assume they’re secretly an asshole. And when people call out each other on political correctness, I don’t assume they’re a snowflake. My mind is no longer full of internet-inspired ideas about how I should feel about these things, so I can weigh each on its merits.

The ultimate benefit is peace of mind concerning my place in society. People talk about the stress of living in twenty-first-century America in this political environment, but I don’t think I feel it nearly as much as others.

Here’s an example. I’m a nonbinary adult. As a regular social media user, I felt trapped in and oppressed by a cis world. Nonbinary memes and discourse kept my attention fixed on how I suffered. But after four years without social media, I rarely think about it anymore. My life is virtually the same as everyone else’s now, except for all that extra time I spend looking for clothes that fit right.

Social media claimed to be opening my eyes to my oppression, but all it did was blind me to how good my life really is.

Oppression is a real problem, and I’ve experienced it. Normalizing or ignoring it will do us no good. But there’s a difference between using the internet to achieve important activist goals and using it to like and share a series of rage- and despair-inducing posts to wallow, something people love to do regardless of their political beliefs.

I know quitting social media feels like a radical step to those who haven’t done it. But almost everyone agrees that life in the global north is radically broken. Diseases of developed nations run rampant, our mental health is collapsing, we have less money and everything costs more yearly. If you can do something to improve it for yourself, there’s no reason not to.


I’ve been a little extremist in the past, penning articles about why you should quit playing video games and drinking alcohol forever. I’ve walked back most of these extreme views, as I now enjoy playing Fortnite and having a glass of wine with the girls. But not this one.¹ Four and a half years without social media, and I don’t regret a damn thing.

You don’t have to jump all in if you’re not ready. Just delete your apps and block the websites for ninety days.

Yes, ninety. Anyone who’s done a 30-day challenge knows that by the third week, you’re just waiting for the challenge to be over so you can return to your drug. Don’t set yourself up for failure — give yourself the time you need to form better lifestyle patterns instead.

Don’t let lame excuses get in your way. The number one reason I see people go back to social media is lame excuses.

If you use social media messaging platforms, ask people to text you instead.

It’s that easy.

I know some people think this is weird. People have asked me for my socials, and I’ve replied, “I don’t have any, but you can text me at [phone number],” only to be met with strange looks. But nobody has ever declined to contact me because of that. You’ll be fine.

If they can’t text you for some reason, try an alternative like WhatsApp or Signal.

If they say “I don’t have those apps,” say “Download them,” and they will. Again, it’s that easy. Yes, this is like a forty-five-second imposition on the other person, but they’ll get over it.

If people send you links to social media posts, click and view them in your browser.

Enjoy that post on your browser for the thirty seconds you’ll be looking at it. Then return to the original text thread where you got the link and reply personally. The end.

If you can’t view these links without signing in, say “Oh well.”

Because the whole point of all this was to avoid social media anyway.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, the pervasive influence of social media on our lives is as unnoticeable as water is to a fish, yet its effects are profound. It can dictate our preferences, behaviors, values, and how we perceive ourselves and others. Beyond the superficial aspects such as physical appearance or lifestyle choices, the more insidious impact lies in how it subtly shapes our thinking, polarizes our views, and eats into our valuable time, personal growth, and meaningful experiences.

Extracting oneself from the all-consuming world of social media might be daunting, but the rewards are numerous and worthwhile. From reclaiming a sense of self and childhood curiosity, to having more time for personal development and leisure, to fostering more open and understanding perspectives toward others, the benefits of a life without social media are remarkable.

This article isn’t a call for extremism, but a plea for consciousness and balance. It’s about taking that bold step toward reclaiming control over our lives, minds, and time. Breaking free from the invisible chains of social media might be the breath of fresh air we need to appreciate and engage with the world around us.

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Footnotes

1: Full disclosure: I use a blank Facebook account to sell things on Marketplace, and I use Reddit to 1) access specific subreddits for career advice and 2) search things like “why does my chest hurt after doing an edible” on /r/trees when Google yields no useful results. These are technically social media platforms, but I don’t consider this ‘using social media’ because my visits take less than half an hour, they’re always for a specific purpose, and I’m browsing a tightly controlled collection of content. Far different from browsing a feed.