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Ingrid Goes West Aubrey Plaza phone Instagram obsession
Ingrid, played by Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West (2017). Someone who actually has more of an unhealthy relationship to social media than I do

A guide to using Instagram without losing your goddamn mind

Waiting for someone to validate your existence by liking a picture isn’t going to help you love yourself

Yesterday, with the first day back at work looming, I downloaded Instagram onto my phone after almost a month without it. Within about 15 minutes, I’d deleted it. That night, I tried again – and as I found myself sucked back into the vortex of scrolling down the feed, I felt my blood pressure creep up and anxiety twist in my stomach. Somehow sensing my distress, the app responded by sending me sponsored posts for online therapists.

Maybe you’re not as highly strung and emotionally overwrought, but there’s something about Instagram that brings out the worst in me. My addictive personality means I struggle to be a casual user – if it’s not off my phone, I’ll probably be compulsively checking it every four minutes. Sometimes I gaze down with disinterest, but other times my thoughts quickly turn to one of the following statements: Why hasn’t the person I’ve been romantically obsessing over liked my selfie? Why don’t I look as good as that? Is everyone else really happier/more fulfilled/having more fun than I am?

Instagram is essential for my job, so it’s not something I can just opt out of (Facebook, on the other hand, I ditched years ago). And that’s not to say I don’t recognise the incredible power it has for good – giving voices to the voiceless and democratising creative industries. Still, we can’t let apps take control of our lives: for the sake of our happiness, we have to make our own rules about how to use them. Here are some I’m trying to live by in 2018. Maybe they’ll help you too.

REALISE SOCIAL MEDIA REALLY IS MAKING US UNHAPPY

All the research says social media makes us feel depressed and lonely, with Instagram being the worst culprit. So why do we dedicate so much time to it? Part of the blame lies with its algorithm, which promises to show you an endless supply of new content, encouraging you to keep opening and refreshing the app. It’s designed to be tempting, but remember: you only have so much mental space, why fill it with pictures of celebrities you don’t know or images of people who just make you feel bad about yourself? Stay far, far away from the Explore page (the more time you spend clicking on pictures of beautiful people, the more beautiful people it will show you), and for the love of god, never, ever look at the pictures your crush, significant other or ex is liking. Recommended reading: Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism and Social Media by Marcus Gilroy-Ware – this will really make you question why you’re addicted to something so demonstrably bad for you.

REMIND YOURSELF THAT EVERYONE’S FAKING IT

Fashion magazines, with their images of glamorous, thin, beautiful (and overwhelmingly white) people used to be regarded as the enemy of self-esteem. Still, there’s a certain suspension of disbelief that occurs when flipping through glossy pages: it’s easy to see when something has been overly airbrushed, and a glamazon ad campaign is quite obviously not how most normal people look. More insidious are the images on Instagram that appear to show ‘real life’ – it’s almost impossible to tell where someone has got rid of their spots, slimmed their waist, or is posing in an outfit they didn’t actually buy. Everyone is putting the best version of themselves on Instagram – they are not as flawless or as happy as they look, and you don’t know what’s going on in their lives. Don’t compare yourself.

ALLOW YOURSELF DOWNTIME

Giving yourself time to actually think and connect with who you are and how you feel is so necessary to avoid burning out from hyperconnection. I have a friend who, occasionally, will spend an entire weekend with her phone off. She warns people in advance that she’ll be off the grid and tells family to email in a real emergency, but is otherwise uncontactable. Another friend puts his phone on airplane mode in the evening until he leaves the house in the morning. If, like me, the idea of actually turning your phone off fills you with an irrational fear that something terrible will happen and you won’t know that you need to, for instance, immediately rush to a hospital, then start small. Turn off notifications. Delete all social media apps for a day, or only have them on an old phone you keep in a drawer and look at in the morning for ten minutes. Take a long bath with a book and leave your phone upstairs. And my personal favourite when agonising over why someone hasn’t texted me back: go and sit in the cinema alone for a few hours.

“Watching someone’s story isn’t the same as spending time with them or asking how they are. Waiting for someone to validate your existence by liking a picture isn’t going to help you love yourself”

VALUE YOUR PRIVACY

The idea of putting pictures of my actual personal life into the public domain is something I generally regard with horror (and TBH, I almost wimped out of writing this about four times). Long gone are the days of screen names: if you’re around the same age as I am, we’ve been essentially brainwashed by giant tech companies to put as much of our personal information online as possible because it’s incredibly profitable for them. Remind yourself that the world doesn’t actually need or deserve to know the intricacies of your private life. A few weeks without Instagram was enough for me to realise that it’s far better to actually be present in your experiences instead of being so busy filming them for your story that they pass you by entirely. Save precious and intimate moments for yourself. Don’t post a picture or story because you hope someone will see it: if you have something to say to them, say it.

FIND SOMETHING ELSE TO FILL THE TIME

Here’s a fun thing you can do if you have an iPhone: Go to settings. Scroll to ‘battery’. Take a look at the ‘battery usage’ section, and click the clock icon. I’ll go first: in the last 24 hours, I’ve already had Instagram on my screen for 58 minutes. One of my colleagues, who will remain nameless, spent 16 hours this week on the app. I used to complain I had no time for the things I wanted to do. Do you know how many books I read when I’d stopped filling every spare moment with scrolling through Instagram? Our generation has a deep-rooted aversion to spending any time alone with our own thoughts. Instead of spending 20 minutes on the ‘gram before bed, write in a diary, read a book, or just sit and check in with yourself, your feelings, your happiness. You are not missing out.

DELETE THE DMS

Your Instagram DM inbox is basically a place where people who don’t know you well enough to have your number can barge into your personal space and demand things of you – your emotions, your energy, your time, your skills. Delete, ignore and deny the undeserving DMs. If you’re feeling exceedingly kind, send them your email address. Remember you do not owe everyone a reply. They will not hold it against you forever like you tell yourself they will.

KNOW THAT A FINSTA ISN’T THE ANSWER – SWITCHING OFF IS

Last year, I thought I’d found the solution to my Insta woes: I made a finsta, or a private account, and only granted access to a select few close friends. ‘It’s ya girl, now with #nofilter’ I captioned my first post – a picture of the mini bottle of plane wine I was drinking. Things started off great – as I'm Facebook-less, I suddenly had an outlet to share the personal side of my life. But then more and more people started requesting to follow me – friends of friends, people I’d met once or not at all. Co-workers wanted to know why I hadn’t I accepted their requests. Rather than an authentic forum for self-expression, the account started to feel like another persona I had to work to maintain.

The final straw came when, in a fragile mood, I posted a sad meme. Friends didn’t come running with support as I’d hoped. They just hit ‘like’. And herein lies the lesson: watching someone’s story isn’t the same as spending time with them or asking how they are. Waiting for someone to validate your existence by liking a picture isn’t going to help you love yourself. And trust me, there are far, far better uses of your short time on this planet than comparing yourself to the beautiful people on the explore page. You wouldn’t allow a person into your life if they caused you stress, anxiety and misery. Treat social media the same way.

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