Sam Holstein

We’ve Been Tricked Into Thinking We Need Social Media

We’ve Been Tricked Into Thinking We Need Social Media

As the years roll by, the mountain of evidence that Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and social media are bad for individuals and society as a whole continues only get bigger. Today it’s Frances Haugen’s leaks and testimonies, tomorrow it’s another scandal. Your reasons for wanting to quit social media only grow greater each year.

Yet the same thing stops you from deleting your social media every time. One simple belief keeps you from doing what you know would be better for the world and for yourself. It’s the phrase “I need social media.”

People tell themselves many stories about why they need social media. Social media companies’ entire existence hinges on their ability to get you to believe these stories about why you need what they’re offering is true.

These stories are not true. You don’t need social media.

I was once a heavy social media user. The majority of my waking hours were spent surfing social media on one of my flagship Apple devices. The rest of my life was crammed into the margins. My hobbies revolved around creating “good” content to post on social media.

I’ve been happily living without social media for three years now. I can safely say I didn’t need social media for anything I thought I did. I didn’t need social media at all, really. It was more of a burden than anything, constantly needing to be checked and updated.

Many of the things I thought I needed social media for, I can do quite fine without it.

Contacting Overseas Friends

Contacting overseas friends is not nearly as difficult as everyone says it is. I’ve never needed Whatsapp to stay in contact with people overseas. Email, Slack, Zoom, and even Skype have served me wonderfully in this way. Most people already have a Skype, too, so it’s not like you’re asking someone to go through the effort of creating an account on a new service.

Contacting Friends

When I decided to quit social media, I was in a social setting where everyone kept in contact primarily through Snapchat. I didn’t wonder “how will my friends contact me?” I thought to myself “If they want to talk to me, they can send me a text.”

I posted to my Snapchat story some text that said ‘I’m deleting my account so send me your number if you want to stay in contact’ and collected the phone numbers of friends. It was that easy.

If you’re sincerely worried you’re going to lose all your friends because you don’t want to use a particular messaging platform anymore, you should worry about the quality of your friendships.

Sending Photos to Loved Ones

Instagram has everyone convinced we need to be sharing photos of our lives with one another. But this is an illusion Instagram’s marketing department works hard to create. Living without Instagram, I simply didn’t want to compulsively share photos the way I used to.

Without a feed to constantly update, I lost motivation to take pictures and selfies. Without an “image” to cultivate, I lost interest in fashion and gadgets. Without somewhere to be seen, I lost the desire to go trendy places. My interest in more satisfying things grew. Hiking became my favorite pasttime. Instead of surfing social media, I spend my time reading books. And I didn’t need to take pictures of it happening to derive satisfaction from it.

On the odd occasion I do want to share a photo with someone, I text it to them personally. Modern apps are more than capable of letting us share photos with each other.

Following the News

Advertisement-funded algorithm-powered social media newsfeeds are among the worst ways to consume news. We have proven it beyond the shadow of a doubt. If you claim to care about reading unbiased news even a little bit, you should not be using social media to source your news.

Go to reputable sources instead. Start with Wikipedia Current Events and AllSides. Do some research of your own into which websites are more or less trustworthy and pick reliable websites of your own to visit for the news. And please, for the love of God, read the entire story. Not just the headline.

Private, Destructible Messages

Disappearing messages feel private, but that doesn’t mean your data is actually private. When you use a big-name social media platform to send a disappearing message, most companies retain a copy of that message for 24 hours, as well as all kinds of data about the message itself (called metadata) they store for 30 days, 90 days, or indefinitely.

If you want to send a truly private message, you need to break away from social media and trust private messaging companies like Signal and Telegram. These messaging platforms keep your data private from even themselves.

Feeling Left Out

One of the bigger, more emotional fears people have about quitting social media is the fear they’ll be left out. They’re afraid without social media, people won’t invite them to parties, remember to check up with them, or participate in their life.

Again, if you’re sincerely worried your friends will forget you because you don’t have social media, you should worry about the quality of your friendships. I’m not going to lie to you — you do lose a few friends when you quit social media. Which really shows you who your friends truly were in the first place.

Once those fake friends are out of the picture, life gets even better. You know everyone who surrounds you is someone who cares about you for you. Your friendships get stronger and more dependable. You may even find yourself deepening those relationships in a way you didn’t know was possible. All because you don’t have social media distracting you anymore.

Career or Dating Concerns

Some people think they need social media to establish a digital history as a legitimate person. That without social media accounts, they will appear suspicious to potential employers or matches on dating apps. Neither of these fears has ever materialized into reality for me.

For my career, I maintain a LinkedIn account, but I do not actively update my LinkedIn beyond job changes every few years, and no client, partner, or employer has ever mentioned my lack of social media.

For my dating life, being without social media has not impeded my ability to date. If anything, dating without social media is freeing. I don’t waste any mental energy worrying about what their posts mean and where they are and what they’re doing. Dating is much more relaxing that way.

And in a committed relationship, not having social media means not having to make my relationship seem happy and enviable via well-timed social media posts. It also means I’m free from worrying about what we “seem like” as “a couple.” It’s nice. You should try it.

The Steep Cost of Using Social Media

All the supposed benefits of social media, then, are not unique to social media. There are plenty of alternatives to every social media platform for everything you would need to use social media for.

The case against social media is even stronger than that. Not only do you not need social media for anything, but social media exacts unique costs that other solutions don’t.

The Personal Cost of Social Media

The personal costs of social media are the ways social media makes our individual lives worse. The personal costs of social media are many, and they are unique to each individual, but there are some common themes that show up for most social media users:

Depression and Anxiety. Social media has a relationship to depression and anxiety, but it isn’t as simple as “using social media causes depression and anxiety.” There are particular use patterns associated with depression and anxiety. If you use social media according to one of these patterns, it’s likely you suffer from depression and anxiety.

Anecdotally speaking, many people say using social media triggers them to compare themselves with their peers unfavorably. I know that’s true for me. Using social media made me feel like there was a huge gulf between the life I should have (married, house, kids) and the life I do have (unmarried, childless, mentally ill). The reality being, of course, there’s no life we “should have,” only the lives we do have, and everyone on social media is engaging in theatrics to pretend otherwise.

Less Satisfying Relationships. Some studies, like this study of 627 participants at BYU, show that increased time spent on social media is correlated with negative effects on emotional well-being and decreased quality of their relationships.

That tracks with my experience. Social media gives the superficial impression of having more friends because you are in superficial contact with more people. But social media exacts a cost. You don’t spend time with close friends deepening your friendships as much as you would otherwise. Instead of going to dinner to celebrate someone’s promotion, you leave emojis and comments on their social media post. Everyone grows distant.

Less Free Time. Every minute you spend on social media is a minute you could be doing something else. The global average for social media use is 2 hours 24 minutes a day, and that’s including all the people who use 0 minutes a day because they don’t have access to the internet!

Check your screen time statistics to be sure, but let’s assume you use social media 3 hours a day. (At the height of my social media fanaticism, I used it 6 hours a day. Many people use social media even more than that.) 3 hours a day is 21 hours a week. Using your social media is at a part-time job — at least. No wonder you feel so busy.

Think of how much more relaxed you would feel if you’d spent that time on self-care instead. Better yet, think of how much more relaxed you would feel if you’d spent that time exercising, earning money, or catching up on sleep.

Increased Consumer Spending. If you ask people, they will tell you social media doesn’t affect what they spend money on, but data consistently proves otherwise. 57% of millennials report spending money they hadn’t planned on because of something they saw on social media. Social media also triggers boredom shopping and comfort shopping. If you want to keep your money in your pocket, quitting social media will only help.

The Societal Cost of Social Media

The societal damage social media companies cause (especially Facebook) has been the subject of much heated discussion over the last few years. Instead of trying to summarize a long and unnecessarily complicated bit of internet history, I will excerpt a paragraph from Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day newsletter that neatly summarizes the current situation.

[Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s] leaks have confirmed a lot of things that many reporters and researchers have been claiming for years. Facebook knowingly promotes right-wing content and conspiracy theories over non-politicized content. They have done little-to-nothing to moderate content in countries like India, Egypt, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Myanmar. They have facilitated ethnic cleansing and human trafficking and played a central role in organizing the January 6 insurrection. The only nice thing to come out of this is that apparently there aren’t any young people on the site anymore.

Much like how Nike owners of the nineties were forced to reckon with the reality that their shoes were created by slave labor, modern social media users must reckon with the reality that their participation in social media enables it to promote bigotry and demagoguery all over the world.

It’s possible that social media companies could turn things around. The Nike of 2021 no longer uses child slave labor and is in fact a leading example when it comes to ethical textile manufacturing at scale. Unlike Nike, though, Facebook has shown no contrition and has made no commitment to making things better. Twitter has made attempts at improving its use policy and enforcing guidelines, but the business model of social media and the way their machine-learning algorithms are constructed make it extraordinarily unlikely social media companies will ever fix these fundamental flaws.

In Conclusion

People tell themselves stories about why they need social media. That’s all they are — stories. You don’t need social media any more than you need a lobotomy. If you are willing to step outside your comfort zone and try a new way of doing things, you will see what I mean.

Quitting social media is uncomfortable for a few weeks. I’m not going to deny that. The first few days you spend without social media are disconcerting. You feel an urge to check things multiple times a day, but you have nothing to check anymore. Plus, you have to get yourself and friends used to new messaging apps like Signal. But the discomfort only lasts a few weeks, and the rewards last a lifetime.