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To be online, or not to be online: why social media users are opting for detox

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you know Twitter is in crisis after the company’s recent acquisition by Elon Musk, who brought in a swathe of changes which included laying off workers, critics, introducing subscription models for blue ticks, and suspending people who made jokes about him (despite stating that he would reverse all suspensions and advocate for ‘free speech’). As hate speech saw an immediate, almost five-fold rise, people started talking about leaving the ‘bird app’ for good, and open-source competitor Mastodon saw a 55% increase in sign-ups.

FILE PHOTO: Tesla Inc. founder Elon Musk speaks at the unveiling event by 'The Boring Company' for the test tunnel of a proposed underground transportation network across Los Angeles County, in Hawthorne, California, U.S. December 18, 2018.  Robyn Beck/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Tesla Inc. founder Elon Musk speaks at the unveiling event by “The Boring Company” for the test tunnel of a proposed underground transportation network across Los Angeles County, in Hawthorne, California, U.S. December 18, 2018. Robyn Beck/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
| Photo Credit:

In an unsurprising parallel, the current state of Twitter echoes the aftermath of Instagram’s pivot to video five months ago, which led to creators calling to ‘make Instagram Instagram again’ even as internal documents showed that the share of Instagram users who believe the platform cares about them fell from close to 70% in 2019 to just about 20%. Over the past few months and years, the app’s indisputable dominance over social media has been challenged by events such as glitch-induced abrupt follower dips and random suspensions, the push to Reels, and the upheaval of ‘the algorithm’ which often leads to larger accounts losing their audience reach.

FILE PHOTO: Twitter app logo is seen in this illustration taken, August 22, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Twitter app logo is seen in this illustration taken, August 22, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
| Photo Credit:
Dado Ruvic

While such sudden, large-scale strategy pivots make social media users re-evaluate their usage of the platform, they also tend to gradually recognise the negative effects of the app on their mental health. This combination of factors is pushing many users, including brands, influencers, and regular people, to opt for a ‘detox’ — a self-imposed extended period of time with limited or no usage of one or more social media platforms. Most commonly seen on Instagram, these mini-exiles are gaining popularity across apps such as Twitter and Reddit too, and are driven by a desire to take a break from overstimulation, prevent mental health deterioration, and fundamentally rewire their online habits to change their relationship with social media.

Breaking bad

In February 2022, Meta reported that its number of daily active users had declined for the first time in the company’s 18-year history.

An October 2022 leak of internal documents highlighted that Twitter’s most-active users had started showing a decline in tweeting and engaging.

Research has shown that a one-week social media break leads to a significant improvement in well-being, depression, and anxiety.

Corporates and non-cooperation

“Dear Instagram, we’re taking a break,” announced The Whole Truth Foods earlier this year. “Don’t know for how long. But we need to,” said the Maharashtra-headquartered brand, which makes clean snacks and aims to demystify healthy eating. In a lengthy caption, they explained how Instagram’s changing algorithm de-prioritised educational, long-form formats and favoured content that catered to the audience’s “ever-shortening attention spans”. Recognising that they had been forced to create content that compromised on value while chasing mass appeal, The Whole Truth Foods admitted: “In our attempt to win with this algorithm, we’re beginning to lose ourselves… We feel we’ve started drifting. Away from what we set out to do. From our mission. (sic.)”

Sukhnidh Kaur

Sukhnidh Kaur

For Sukhnidh Kaur, a research fellow at Microsoft, and an influencer, the desire to detox was triggered by the realisation that Instagram’s engagement-oriented architecture was just a manifestation of corporate interests. “My creativity — which is big, exciting and all over the place, just the way I like it — was moulding itself uncomfortably to it. That made me feel stifled and inauthentic. I just wasn’t me anymore. I also began to feel a hint of worry about my relevance. That’s when I knew I had to go. ,” she said. After a year-long hiatus, Kaur is back on Instagram, but notices a difference in her mindset. “I’m consciously attempting to create and publish content that might not gain immense traction, but will make me happy. It’s like my own little rebellion. And my mood is not as determined by numbers and notifications as it used to be,” she says.

Vaibhavi Khanwalkar, Bengaluru-based journalist, uninstalled the app when the Reels update made it addictively immersive, admitting “it would’ve taken time to get out of the habit otherwise, but I was so shook by how much time I already spent on the app that it was easy to just leave it and not look at it. I only use web browser versions now.” After a year, she says, she feels calmer without all the unnecessary stimulation: “I find myself out of step in social situations now because I don’t know what’s trending. But I am happy to be ignorant.”

All these users realised that Instagram’s algorithm (with unequal prioritisation of certain types of content) was changing the app in ways that they didn’t enjoy. On Twitter, too, many users realise that the app is built to proliferate controversy — because that gets more clicks. Paromita Bardoloi, Delhi-based writer of Forty Notes of Wisdom For Every Woman, deleted her account the day after actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide in 2020 and conspiracy theories took over Twitter. “We were in the midst of Covid deaths, a suicide of a young actor, and then the slandering of a young woman. I was overwhelmed beyond measure. I was losing my appetite and sleep with the barrage of information,” she says. She returned to Twitter with a new account, after a year. Musk’s actions have her on high alert. “Right now, I am fence-sitting, watching Twitter go through bizarre changes. I am still in control of myself, but anytime I feel it’s taking over my sanity, I have the deactivate button,” Bardaloi states.

Social media therapy

Krishna Adhaduk

Krishna Adhaduk

For some, taking a break from one app causes them to turn to other, seemingly better apps. Krishna Adhaduk, currently a master’s student at M. S. Ramaiah University of Applied Sciences, Bengaluru, found himself addicted to Instagram in the first wave of the pandemic. “All my classmates and school friends were either starting their jobs, or getting into great universities for Master’s. I saw all of this on Instagram… It was making me feel bad about myself. The doom-scrolling was addictive, but unproductive.” In his year-long break, Adhadhuk noticed he was more peaceful and positive. “My attention span definitely increased. I could sit idle for five minutes without literally doing anything. It was amazing. I read a lot more. I became less irritated. I slowly stopped wondering about what others are doing. Instead, I was happy for them,” he says.

Adhadhuk reactivated his account after undergoing therapy. He has stopped engaging with Instagram altogether, turning to Twitter instead, highlighting the relatively greater anonymity and authenticity of the app. “For me, Twitter is like a collective-therapy session without a pre-decided therapist. I’ll tweet, someone will have similar issues, and we’ll both vent,” Adhadhuk said. “On Instagram, it feels like everyone has the perfect life. Twitter on the other hand is the exact opposite. Such posts make you feel that everyone is just doing their best and maybe you can, too.”

Dee (name changed), who has been on a Twitter break for the last six months since she realised that she had begun craving an audience who would validate her sad tweets, also observed that the ‘moral policing’ on Twitter prevented the voicing of thoughts and didn’t allow correction or formation of opinions at one’s own pace. “Now with Musk at the helm, I am actually considering deleting my account for good,” she says, adding that she remains active on Instagram.

However, Diya, a 23-year-old management consultant based in Gurgaon who went on Instagram detox in October, when she realised she was feeling bad about not being as successful, rich or stylish as other people’s projected lives, prefers the anonymity of Twitter. “I feel no compulsion to reveal details about my life. Since a lot of other people here are also anonymous and strangers, the urge to compare myself is a little less,” she says.

For some people, the detox turns into a permanent deletion of their accounts on social media. Kev, a data scientist currently based in the UK, went on a few Instagram detoxes before leaving the app for good in 2020. “People on Instagram anyway usually put up a curated look at the happy parts of life, and while I was still there to try to stay in touch with older friends, I fully left a few months into the pandemic.” Kev feels Twitter presents a more authentic reflection of users. “That makes it a much more effective dating app than most dating apps themselves,” he laughs.

Mindful use over drastic breaks?

Vaidehi Murthy

Vaidehi Murthy

Bengaluru-based copywriter Vaidehi Murthy, who has amassed a following of 16.5k on Twitter with her witty one-liners, appreciates the platform for the opportunities, including job offers, that she received through it. Recent events have caused her to explore other platforms. “Twitter seems more volatile by the day. I’ve ventured into LinkedIn recently to gauge the platform in terms of content and audience, should there come a day when Twitter shuts shop. The way I look at it, I’ve invested thought, effort and time to build my content on Twitter. And when I sense instability in the platform, my first instinct is to diversify my investment. That’s where platforms like LinkedIn and/or Instagram come into the picture,” she says.

Murthy has also done regular detoxes, to “prevent social media from being an omnipresent, all-consuming activity” in her day. Now, for the past few years, she takes a month off from social media every four or five months, making each hiatus by changing her Twitter icon to an image that says ‘Closed for Maintenance,’ to let everyone know all is well.

Acknowledging that algorithms encourage mindless scrolling, Drishti Jaisingh, RCI Clinical Psychologist, adds that she too prefers the idea of balance. “There are definitely positive effects of social media, and anything consumed in limits is better than extreme dependence or complete ‘detox’. Moderation is key for it to be a long-term change,” and recommends mindful use, like setting a daily limit, or using it for a specific purpose. Nishtha Narula, lead counselling psychologist and program manager at the Fortis National Mental Health Programme, too recommends balanced detoxes as a proactive measure to combat the ill-effects of all social media platforms.

Nikhil Taneja

Nikhil Taneja

These problems are a social media-wide phenomenon, not just on specific platforms, and hence require a wider detox too, according to Nikhil Taneja, co-founder and CEO of Yuvaa, a youth research and impact organisation, which has worked with Instagram on their digital initiatives. Taneja has done detoxes along with consciously inculcating healthy online habits, and now reads the newspaper every morning instead of immediately looking at his phone. He says, “In my detoxes I go as offline as possible across all apps, because it’s a tech problem at large that has got us all addicted to screen-time, notifications, noise.” Pointing out that the youth of today are the first generation to grow up with social media, and hence are still figuring out ways to balance it, Taneja is optimistic about where we’re headed. “It may be popular to go on detoxes right now, but eventually, it is conversations and education around healthy social media use that will help us build holistic digital habits.” Taneja highlighted that Yuvaa is one of the many organisations that Instagram is partnering with to create awareness around healthy online activity, globally. ‘Take a Break’, launched earlier this year, is one such initiative that aims to encourage users to limit their app usage to a fixed amount of time.

Is this a sign of the times for social media apps realising that they have crossed the tipping point in user favour? Will platforms start prioritising user well-being over profits? Will detoxes become an app-approved recommendation to foster healthy use? Or will they ignore the compounding consequences of information overload and hyper communication? Only time will tell. For now, the only thing in our hands is our phone (and what we choose to do with it).

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