Lately, I’ve been trying to find a way to leave an abusive relationship…with my screen. I grew up in the lion’s den of social connectivity and technology. My mother worked for one of the earliest Internet Service Providers, and I changed usernames like teeny bopper outfits for a weeknight mall loiter. Like so many millennials, technology was a part of my existence from a very young age.
When Facebook came along, I joined in high school. When Instagram appeared on the scene, I joined in college. When Snapchat was all the rage, I joined because my boyfriend at the time was obsessed with it. Like a hermit crab, I eventually outgrew all the accounts once they could no longer satiate my attention. I gorged myself on the instant gratification of notifications, purged my entire life in pixelated play-by-plays.
As I became older and accumulated more #IRL responsibilities, I found that my ability to engage in social media’s parallel universe was waning. I frequently forgot my Facebook password. The more bells and whistles that Instagram created for its platform, the less I felt I could keep up. I was aware of fleeting moments that I felt could be captured in a TikTok video, but I never ended up making an account.
And this realization made me feel bad. I felt I wasn’t trendy enough. I felt I wasn’t radical enough. I felt like I wasn’t with it. The more #inspo I tried to post, the more empty I felt. The louder I wanted to speak, the more withdrawn I became. The more I idolized what others were doing, the more I minimized my own experience. I was trapped in a prison of emotional polarization.
I would vacillate between periods of social media abstinence and phases of pure gluttony. Every time I came back, I thought my relationship to these applications could be different. Most recently, I spent two hours manually deleting all the photos off of my Instagram account with the hopes that I could start afresh. I thought I would receive an email from Instagram with my almost-decade’s worth of data. I never got the email, and somehow, I don’t care that much—personal information is apparently cheap these days.
During the pandemic last year, I read an article in Counseling Today about how helping professionals can support clients in taking back control of their social media use. Amanda L. Giordano, LPC was calling for more intentional use of social media platforms:
The answer is not to stop using social media. The answer is for clients to take more control of their social media use so they’re not just going along with whatever impulses they have but [instead] being intentional.
Giordano pointed to the psychological design of most major social media platforms, and how they control our behavior without us even realizing it.
They operate from the variable ratio reinforcement scenario. That’s the most powerful reinforcement schedule there is. [Social media’s draw] is like gambling, knowing that there could be a big payout at any time, so you keep playing.
This realization clicked for me when I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix, and a former Google employee was explaining how the reward system in the brain is activated every time a user pulls down their screen to refresh their feed. Yet the documentary seemed to take their stance one step further and convey that our connections online are often disguised as relational when in fact they are transactional.
If I’m really being honest, I post content for attention and not connection. I don’t think I’m alone. I freely give my personal data to corporations and entities to capitalize on my emotions and predict my behavior. I allow algorithms to organize my limited worldview by showing me similar accounts and posts to those I already engage with. And I end up engaging in social media motivated by characteristics of white supremacy culture: acting with urgency, adopting either/or thinking about political topics, believing that there is only one right way to act or express, curating a “perfect” persona, and producing quantity over quality.
Although the internet does not care about my boundaries, I have to start somewhere. Social media isn’t going away any time soon, and I honestly don’t have a solution for anything I just wrote about. Some practices that I have been incorporating into my own life are:
- Adding time limits on my application use
- Dialoguing with others in real life when possible
- Diversifying my informational sources such as listening to more podcasts
- Exploring decentralized online platforms to connect to others and/or support their work such as Mighty Networks, Patreon, or Substack
- Pruning the accounts I follow which negatively impact my mental health
- Turning off notifications for applications
I may not have the answers, but I do know that I am gaining the courage to leave behind something I thought I couldn’t live without.
Marielle Grenade-Willis is a current counseling intern with People House and a master’s student at the University of Colorado – Denver. With a B.A. in Sociology/Anthropology and a background in dance, dramatic, and vocal performance, she applies a somatic and systemic approach to the individualized work of counseling. Marielle works from a client-centered, experiential, narrative, and trauma-informed perspective with her individual clients. Prior to People House, she worked extensively in nonprofits focused on animal conservation, food access, and refugee welfare; and has had her poems read and published throughout the Front Range and beyond.
If you are interested in working with Marielle, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-428-6267.