By Munara Muhetaer
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can use my phone to call an Uber home later.”
I barely knew her, but she meant it as a reassurance. We were a small crowd of nineteen and twenty-year-olds partying downtown for a mutual friend’s birthday. This was her way of looking out for a female acquaintance whose phone battery had just died, and who’d have to make her way out of the city alone in the dead of night.
I appreciated her offer, of course. But at that moment, getting home wasn’t my main concern. All I could think about was how I wouldn’t be able to document this night and plaster it all over my social media. Outfit: wasted. Fancy drinks: pointless. Night: ruined.
After all, if you didn’t post about it, did it really happen?
Now, when I look back at this memory from over a year ago, I’m embarrassed that I couldn’t simply enjoy an outing for what it was. But at the time, my relationship with social media, specifically Instagram, was consuming. I was constantly recording and sharing my life: what I was wearing, where I was and who I was with. It was a habit, almost a natural instinct.
There was a time when I’d spend entire weekends reading a book while curled up on the couch. Where I cut my own bangs unevenly and made my own jewellery out of beads that I bought at the dollar store. But over the years, I’d created and carefully cultivated a caricature of myself online: one that was outgoing, done up and with an expensive taste for clothes and food.
It happened gradually. What initially started as a hobby bled off the screen and began to control the real-life me. Every view, like and comment I received validated my self-esteem, and so I kept seeking them. I felt this need to maintain the image I’d meticulously crafted and mimic the lifestyles of the other beautiful women overcrowding my feed, no matter how unattainable.
What was once a fun fling between Instagram and I had morphed into a toxic relationship and I was trapped without knowing it.
Then the pandemic hit. All my weekend plans went out the window, then the next week’s, then the next month’s — until there was nothing left to do but to sit at home and wait. In quarantine, my life became somewhat static and suddenly I was out of things to post. Yet that no longer seemed to matter anymore. There was so much devastation everywhere — people were losing their livelihoods, their loved ones, their own lives. I knew that I was one of the luckier ones.
Largely stuck in isolation with no set schedule and with a lot of spare time on my hands, I spent hours upon hours doing what I knew best: scrolling through posts, sifting through comments, refreshing the explore page. But along with the inspiring stories and activism that came out of this time, I also saw a lot of negativity and skepticism and comment sections bombarded with hate. The more time devoted to my screen, the more hopeless and depressed I felt. I developed insomnia and was always fatigued. There were days I didn’t want to do anything, where I didn’t even want to get out of bed.
And every time I clicked on my profile, I could barely recognize the person smiling back at me. Who was she? Certainly not me with my uncombed hair and the bags under my eyes.
I could feel for the first time the true extent of the mental stress social media was causing me — something that I didn’t let myself feel before, when I was too busy maintaining a public performance of myself. Though my relationship with Instagram had somewhat evolved, it was even more draining now. I was no longer concerned with views, likes and comments, but my mental health was suffering from all the negativity I was exposed to. I knew that I had to step back, but it was difficult to tear myself away. Toxic relationships aren’t always easy to recognize and they’re even harder to leave.
I decided to take my departure from Instagram one step at a time. I set myself daily reminders for how much time I can spend on the platform and abided by them. I spent more time with my family. I started taking long walks outside. I bought myself a dozen new books. And I began writing for myself again — stories, scripts, essays, ramblings — and in doing so, I rediscovered a love I’d somehow abandoned along the way.
Now, some months later, I’m in a much better place. My mental health has improved and I feel the most creative and productive I’ve ever been. I’ve learned to focus my time, energy and efforts on what truly matters: the people I love, the projects I’m passionate about and the real me instead of the caricature.
I’ve also learned the importance of practicing mindfulness and moderation when using social media. And I’m slowly learning to rediscover Instagram again through a new lens — this time, as a tool to inspire and to be inspired, to inform and to be informed and to connect — not as a toxic partner keeping a tight rein on my life.
Yes, Instagram and I are broken up, but we’re working on being friends.