Why I Deleted Instagram At 21, And How You Can Take Control Of Your Social Media Habits Too

Emily Shevlane
May 10, 2020 · 11 min read

The positive and negative forces of social media have probably never been clearer to each and every one of us than during the current social isolation we are weathering in COVID-19 lockdown. Although this article was written from a pre-lockdown perspective, I believe everything stands true.

Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

If you’re single and in your twenties, then the chances you’ve downloaded Hinge and browsed through London’s finest are high. Someone catches your eye, but are they the real deal… How else could this be confirmed but with a full-blown Insta analysis? Cut to the reactions of my matches when they find out I am untraceable, prompting the following remarks: ‘But you’re a white girl in 2019’, ‘Are you even real?’ and ‘How do you know you’ve even eaten tho?’

I think it’s clear we’ve got a problem on our hands.

As a 24-year-old sitting on the threshold of Millennials and Generation Z, for those surrounding me Instagram is entrenched in daily life and undeniably moulds our social behaviour. Greeted with unfiltered disbelief whenever it’s leaked that I don’t use Instagram, three years on I thought it would be useful to put my thoughts about social media down on paper.

My friends can vouch for my inability to keep a story short and sweet, so do bear with me. After painting a pretty bleak social media picture to begin with, I move into how I tailored my approach in order to cope, and then impart some advice and a healthy dose of brutal honesty to enable you to do the same.

How Social Media Is Using You

Researching the social media business model revealed the ways they operate. Since most social media is free for the user, they rely on advertisements to make profit. This means it is not us who are the customers but rather the advertisers themselves; and our attention thus becoming their commodity.

Trevor Haynes, a Harvard University researcher reveals that this has created “an arms race for your attention and time. Ultimately, the winners of this arms race will be those who best use their product to exploit the features of the brain’s reward systems.” It is naive to think our enjoyment of or benefit derived from these apps is a priority to the social media giants. In fact, user hedonism is a means to an end — our precious time and attention whittled away on the app, is the real mula maker.

“You don’t realise it but you are being programmed” — Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook.

To keep us hooked, social media platforms have been modified in a host of ways far from the consumer’s best interest. We’ve all seen the headlines about how positive social feedback (such as someone liking your photo) stimulates the brain to release dopamine — the same kind of chemical reaction that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs. “Science shows that we are basically carrying around little dopamine stimulators in our pockets, so it’s not surprising that we’re constantly distracted by our phones” — Kelly Mcsweeney, science and technology researcher.

What I didn’t know though, is that it’s the randomness and uncertainty of these rewards (you don’t know if there’s going to be a notification or not when you check your phone), just like gambling, that creates the habit (the urge to keep checking your phone). If you’re on it for non-business-related reasons, these tactics make it very hard to have a healthy relationship with Instagram. Although most don’t like to admit it, it’s a relationship in which Instagram most definitely wears the pants.

“And so you could ask when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?” — Tristan Harris, former Google product manager.

When ‘Like For A Like’ Doesn’t Cut The Mustard

Like a dog to a bone, we worked out what content would maximise these rewards, and began to curate it — showing only our best self, living our ‘best life’ and constantly striving for perfection. So now, we carry around a world 24/7 and accessible at a touch, in which everyone is bloody beautiful, having a bladdy brilliant time and boshing every aspect of life; be it fitness, family life or artisan doughnut making.

Excessive self-flagellation and social comparison, ensues.

We’ve all seen it happen — someone gets their phone out to take a photo and people cower and refuse to be photographed. Whereas you can’t so much as blink before everyone and their uncle has their phones out to snap the entrance of a bottle of Belvedere or a Birthday sing song. I felt this pressure too, it was almost as if the moment wasn’t enough without documenting it and adding it to my online portfolio of what constitutes a cool/fun life. But for whose benefit? Add selfies to the mix, and in our dopamine-driven desire for social validation we lost all sense of the true value of photos.

A long way from the birth of the camera in 1888, the preciousness of photos has been forgotten when we use them as marketing tools to maintain our social image, and alleviate our insecurities.

But as you and I both know, regardless of how wonderful our lives look on the screen, they could be (and I would argue are more likely to be), pretty bleak. Chamath Palihapitiya revealed in a chilling interview (found below), “We compound the problem, we curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals — hearts, likes, thumbs up. And we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth, and instead what it really is is fake brittle popularity, that’s short term and that leaves you more, and admit it, vacant and empty than before you did it.”

They have us in the palm of their hands: regardless of the number of rewards we get, we keep using the app in pursuit of the next dopamine hit. It’s a win-win for both advertisers and social media.

Why I Wasn’t Living My Best Life

As someone that considers themselves extremely fortunate in terms of quality of life, and very confident in the non-digital world, these thoughts and feelings didn’t seem right. Compound them with the frequency with which we open up Instagram on a daily basis, and I found it took a lot more from me than I gained from using it.

How My Relationships Changed For The Better: Quality Over Quantity

Studies show that in June 2018, 400 million active daily users spent on average 53 minutes per day on Instagram — that’s over 6 hours a week. IMAGINE what you could do with that time. Call six friends and have an hour-long conversation every week? Smash six workouts with a friend? Get a part time job and pay for a holiday away with the lads?

Aside from taking up time that could be spent with your nearest and dearest, it’s replacing in-person connection in other ways too. The constant stream of photos and stories make it easy to feel up to date with our friends’ lives, by the simple act of scrolling. I think this has made some of us lazy in our friendships, and ignorant to what’s actually going on beyond the highlights reel. Why message your friend to see how they’re doing when the photo of their brunch, dog walk and trip to the pub are in front of you and suggesting they’re having a great time? Without this crutch, I have no other option but to call, Facetime, voice note, message or meet up with my friends to find out about them and ‘stay connected’.

By engaging like this, I find out what they’re excited about, working towards, or worried about — things a photo of a Bali sunset would never have told me. And without the constant reminders of what they’re up to from their Instagram posts and stories, for example a marathon they’ve run, I’m forced to remember the things that matter to them. In this process, you realise who you really care about, who cares about you, and you can choose friendship quality, over quantity.

Jumping Out Of The Hamster Wheel

“The information we consume matters just as much as the food we put in our body. It affects our thinking, our behaviour, how we understand our place in the world. And how we understand others.” — Evan Williams, Co-Founder of Twitter and Medium.

You Can Have The Good Without The Bad

First of all, how did we get here? A very wise friend said to me, “when you’re younger you’re taught about how to have a healthy balanced diet, and chocolate can form part of that. With this, you’re taught that there is good and bad in chocolate, and over-consumption will undeniably have negative consequences.” The problem for my cohort (on the border of Millennials and Gen Z) is that social media grew up alongside us. As a result, not only did we lack information on its benefits and drawbacks, but now this has been discovered, we are already entrenched in our ways.

Like everything in life, social media has its positives and negatives. But I think if you inform yourself about them and identify how they affect you personally, you can start to take what’s good without the bad. For me, the drawbacks of Instagram included social comparisons, predictable content and it’s all-consuming nature. However, like many others, I really love photography, funny videos, and having easy access to fashion, beauty, and lifestyle tips.

So I started to find some alternatives. I watch YouTubers to get fashion, beauty, and lifestyle tips. I use TikTok to get a quick laugh. And finally, I use Facebook to share occasional photo albums with friends and family — this allows me to share moments and places without the frequency, or dependency for affirmation, that Instagram posed for me.

This by no means is a faultless solution. Wouldn’t it be great if we could share photos without risk of our data privacy being breached or being indoctrinated to vote for Trump? And so, I do see it as a temporary solution until we come up with ways to tackle those larger challenges. If you want to rid yourself of these threats completely, coming up with alternatives can function as your nicotine patch to help you gradually wean off and go completely social media cold turkey.

I would also add, deleting Instagram isn’t necessary for everyone — maybe you’re able to enjoy the good without the bad. Maybe it’s not Instagram, but videos on Facebook that are your vice, or celebrity spats on Twitter, or Snapchat stories. My advice to everyone though, would be to weigh up what value it provides you, and use that information to make an eyes-open, adult decision. A decision that we were never given the option to make when this monumental tech era flooded in through our doors and windows.

Mummy Why Does No One Like Me…

For many of us fortunate enough to have made it out the other end of the glory days also known as puberty, the effects of social media may not be so strong. However, I really worry about the generations after us. Moving through child to adulthood, social validation is an overwhelmingly central concern. And as if battling through questions of identity, raging hormones and unprecedented academic pressures wasn’t enough, the youth of today also have a perfect online persona to uphold.

With that, I do think we have a responsibility to our younger siblings, nieces and nephews, and future children, to chip away at social change. Chamath Palihapitiya said, “I would encourage all of you as the future leaders of the world, to really internalise how important this is. If you feed the beast that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and reign it in.”

When I deleted Instagram in 2017 I kept my profile thinking it was a temporary solution to the negative feelings it produced in me — what I didn’t predict was that I would never look back. If reading this prompts you to do just one thing, I challenge you to question the value of each of your posts. Are your grandchildren going to cherish a photo of a bunch of flowers your work gave you? More to the point, what is its purpose now? This content is self-fulfilling, and it’s a waste of your time.

On the surface it doesn’t seem narcissistic, but really, that picture of flowers is sending out an underlying message: ‘I’m valued by others, and I want you to know that too’. I too, found myself caught up in this game of trying to obtain affirmation from others, which is rigged by its never-ending nature. With personal validation (from within), purely receiving the gift will be enough.

I urge you to forget about documenting every moment and start just living in it. For me, the best thing was realising that when no one else is ‘watching’, you don’t have anyone to please.

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Emily Shevlane

Written by

Learning as I go, sharing my exploration of ideas, issues, and taboos across various disciplines — with a focus on personal development & social change.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

Emily Shevlane

Written by

Learning as I go, sharing my exploration of ideas, issues, and taboos across various disciplines — with a focus on personal development & social change.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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