8 Things I Learned During a Year-Long Break From Social Media

iPhone screen with various social media icons. A glass of espresso, half empty, is next to the phone with a spoon inside.

Over a year ago, I decided to step away from social media. Without any big announcement posts or long-winded rants about how terrible social media is, I stopped posting and removed the apps from my phone. 

There wasn’t a catalyst, I was just tired. I was tired of the constant scrolling; of the insubstantial content; of buying things I didn’t need because that Instagram ad targeted me at the right time; of comparing myself to friends, family, and influencers who looked so effortlessly cool; of creating my own inauthentic content to promote my writing and podcast because you have to play the game or get lost. I was tired of it all.

So I left. But not without some guilt and trepidation. What about my writing projects? How would potential readers find me and eventually buy my work when it was published? How would agents and publishers take me seriously if I didn’t have a social media presence? How would folks find our podcast and give it a listen? 

I committed to taking a year-long break and as soon as I removed the apps from my phone, I felt immediate relief. I was giving myself permission to stop spending five to ten hours a week creating posts I didn’t care about just to keep up with the algorithms. I was giving myself permission to avoid triggering content and targeted ads. I was giving myself permission to curate a life, off-screen, that I loved. 

During my year-long break, I learned a lot of things about myself, social media, and people. Some of it good and some of it not-so-good. But whether you’re interested in taking a break yourself or just curious about it, I’ve outlined the top eight things I learned in my journey. 

1. Free time 

As I mentioned above, I was spending five to ten hours a week creating, posting, and engaging with social media content in order to promote my writing and podcast on business accounts. I would spend evenings, lunch breaks, weekends, and any spare moment to crank out whatever was fast and easy so I could go enjoy my real life (not the version on social media). I was also spending an additional two hours a day scrolling and posting on my personal accounts. 

For my business accounts, it was not only exhausting but unfruitful. I was only getting a few followers each week and low engagement on all my posts. (The marketing nerd in me wants to break down for you where I went wrong but this isn’t a marketing article so I’ll save it for another time.) In the personal realm, I was overwhelmed by all the cool things my friends were doing; all the lifestyle, career, and money tips from influencers; and the stream of products that would improve [insert literally anything] in my life. 

When I stopped engaging with social media, I gained back an average of twenty-one hours a week. 

With my new free time, I focused on writing, reading, cooking, and connecting with my friends and family. In the evenings, I worked on Ophelium and wrote twenty-nine new chapters in 2022. After dinner, I watched TV with my husband and didn’t multi-task or stare at my phone. During my lunch breaks, I made yogurt, granola, crackers, and sourdough bread from scratch. And before bed every night, I started reading and doubled the number of books I read in 2022 versus 2021. It was great! 

Free time is a privilege and this is with the understanding that not everyone will have the ability to take back so much time or be able to use it for self-care like I was fortunate enough to do. For those who are taking a break, I hope you are able to use any time you get back for your health and care. 

2. You’ll realize (and not miss) the sensory overload

A few months into my year-long break, a friend wanted to show me something on Instagram and held out her phone for me to see while she scrolled. Those three seconds before she found the post felt like a bad trip. There was a blur of colors and sounds and movement and my eyes couldn’t focus on anything. It was overwhelming and sickening. It was also when I realized what a sensory overload social media is. 

Think about it: there are millions of posts created every day and all of them are vying for attention. They have to be colorful, loud, and interesting. Otherwise they’re not doing their job. Over time though, your brain gets used to it and you begin to filter for certain things. Maybe it’s posts with cute dogs or someone doing a workout tutorial. But when you step away and come back, it’s like someone pressed clear all filters and now you see everything. And it’s chaotic. 

This insight also helped me realize how much calmer and more focused I was post-social media. Instead of jumping around from task-to-task (the same way I would scroll from post-to-post), I could engage more wholly with the process. Including calling in my other senses besides sight and sound. I started to think about textures and taste and smell. Do you remember what your coffee this morning tasted like? Or how your notebook paper feels when you’re writing? 

3. People get it 

When I first started this journey, I was dreading the moment when someone would ask if I saw their latest dog photo or what was my handle so they could tag me and I’d have to say, sorry I’m not on social media at the moment. I was certain people would give a polite laugh but secretly think: she’s such a weirdo. Or even worse, force me to explain myself like I was on trial for eschewing a social norm. Instead, I experienced the complete opposite. 

Whenever I told someone that I was on a break from social media, I usually received one of the following responses: 1) That’s great! I wish I could do that. 2) I’m on a break too! 

Maybe they were just being polite, but a substantial amount of people told me they also wanted to take a break from social media. The reasons were varied though centered around feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, losing control over their time, and damaging self-comparisons. 

In my experience, almost everyone else also wanted to take a break in some capacity but for various reasons, didn’t feel empowered to do so. For some it was the only way to connect with family or friends. For others, it was the best way to keep up with happenings in the city or a cause they believed in. For the rest, it was simply amusing. 

But regardless of their reason for staying, in my experience, everyone was more open and accepting of my break than I initially thought. In some cases, they were also accommodating and would share information from social media or send me an alternate form of the post (like a link to the news article instead of the Facebook post about it). 

And for the folks who were also on a break, it was nice to learn that I wasn’t alone in my journey. There are a lot more people out there who are also tired of social media. 

4. You can never truly escape 

That being said, I also learned that taking a break from social media doesn’t mean you can escape it. At the onset, I imagined removing the apps from my phone and never seeing another Instagram or Twitter post again. Turns out, I saw quite a few over the past year. 

Friends and family, even knowing I was on a break, would still share TikTok videos, Pinterest recipes, and shocking (or funny) tweets. I thought about not engaging with them as part of my break, but ultimately ended up watching or reading a majority of them. While this is a personal choice, I felt that if a friend or family member took the time to share something with me because they thought I would enjoy it, then I wanted to be part of that. This still aligned with my core purpose of not actively engaging in social media by scrolling, posting, or commenting so it made sense for my personal break. 

Something else I couldn’t escape–ending up in other people’s photos. There were several occasions over the year-long break when someone I knew would say or text, hey I saw that photo of you [on vacation, at a wedding, drinking coffee] it looked cute! 

When starting out on my break, I never thought about how to handle photos of myself being posted by other people. To be honest, I was only thinking about my own posting! 

I didn’t want to ban people from posting pictures of me and I also didn’t want to be left out of group photos, so I let posters post. My break from social media wasn’t to become a recluse, but rather a personal need for more space and a more conscious way of living. Just don’t be surprised if someone else knows more about you than you think! 

5. You’ll miss out 

Speaking of people knowing more…I also learned (sometimes painfully) that you’ll miss out on a lot of updates from your connections. This includes happy updates like engagements, pregnancies, adoptions, new jobs, a first home, the addition of a fur baby, etc. It also included the more serious news like deaths, local tragedies, and layoffs. 

Social media has evolved to become a way to communicate quickly with a large number of people. Instead of calling every friend you have to tell them you’re pregnant, you post a photo of a baby onesie. Likewise, when you’re near a local tragedy, you can mark yourself as safe instead of texting everyone in your contact list. This can be incredibly helpful in serious situations and incredibly efficient in the more happy ones. 

However, if you’re taking a break from social media you’re most likely going to miss these announcements. I sometimes found out weeks or months later and would often be that person in the group who never seemed to know what everyone else was up to. Sometimes it was uncomfortable and I’d do something awkward like ask about a boyfriend who was now an ex, but in most cases people were understanding and I liked hearing the (un-curated) news from the source.

6. Breaking news won’t be so breaking, but it’ll be better

When Queen Elizabeth II passed away on September 8, 2022, I learned about it the next day in The Morning Brew. By that time, the internet had already exploded with articles, posts, videos, commentaries, tweets, etc. about the late queen. But I hadn’t seen a single one. In fact, the recap in my daily Morning Brew newsletter was the first realization that a longstanding, important political figure had passed. 

Stepping away from social media also meant stepping away from breaking news, first-hand accounts, and real time updates. While again, I always seemed to be the last to know about anything, it came with one huge benefit: I had access to more complete information. 

Think about it, the goal of a breaking news story is to be the first. It’s not about having complete information or applying critical analysis. Its one purpose is to get in front of you before anyone else does. After that, it’s a fast avalanche of other people trying to be the first in their circles of influence to break the news via blog posts, social media, email, text, etc. But without complete source information, they’re typically just sharing incomplete versions with some added personal commentary or speculation. 

Learning about key local and global events a day or two after they happen often means that you have access to a more complete picture. Including interviews, first-hand accounts, critical analysis, and relevant social commentary. This type of additional context can help you understand what happened and how it impacts you and the greater world. 

7. Envy and fomo dwindle 

As discussed in the previous subheadings, you’re going to miss out on things. News, announcements, funny memes, and most importantly, content that sets the comparison monster off. I’m sure you’ve had a run in with the comparison monster at some point as you’re scrolling. It’s the voice that says, Alex always looks so great and you look like a Sanderson Sister before the potion.

The comparison monster also loves going off when it sees evidence of your friends and families doing things without you. Instead of comparing yourself to something or someone, it starts saying well they probably didn’t invite you because you’re boring/annoying/a drag. Or if you were invited and declined, it sounds more like, look how much fun they had! You shouldn’t have stayed home to unwind. You can relax anytime. 

In any of these scenarios the end result is the same. You feel isolated, envious, and miserable. Someone is living or portraying something that feels out of reach and all you can do is compare or go down a rabbit hole searching for an emotional fix. 

But when you remove the triggering event (the photo from a friend’s vacation, influencer tutorials, etc.) the comparison monster has fewer things to compare. I’m not saying the monster lives solely on social media, but there’s plenty of content on there for it to latch onto and removing it will give you some space.

After being away from social media for over a year, I’m still working on letting go of comparison, but it’s a hell of a lot easier when my field of vision is limited to what’s in front of me and not a curated version. It’s also made me appreciate the things that I have in my life so much more. My vacation doesn’t have to stack up against anyone else’s vacation because I probably didn’t even know they took one!

8. Social media as a search engine 

Amelia and Brooke’s reasoning behind Pinterest as a search engine is simple: 

  • Content on Pinterest lives there forever and is infinitely searchable. What you posted 2 years ago will show up with as much relevancy as something posted 2 minutes ago. 
  • Users (typically) don’t go to Pinterest to just scroll; they come to the platform seeking answers.

This revelation not only changed my relationship with Pinterest (I started to use it again during my break for targeted searches) but also changed my view on social media. What if I traded mindless scrolling for specific searches? Instead of opening the apps just to see what’s happening, I opened them only when I was on a specific mission? Like searching the hashtag #mswl when I’m ready to query or searching for hair tutorials when I chop all my hair off and have no idea what to do with it? 

While I’ve integrated Pinterest back into my life, I haven’t quite made it to integrating other social media platforms. Still, the idea of using the power of social media to answer specific questions is a lot more palatable than giving the platforms unlimited access to my time, money, and mental energy. 

Final thoughts

My break from social media was supposed to last a year. But it’s been way longer than 365 days and I’m not sure I’ll go back anytime soon. I feel more calm, grounded, and authentic. Additionally, my writing, self-esteem, and physical health have all improved. I’ve also become closer to my family and friends and learned to appreciate all the (real) things right in front of me. 

Maybe I’ll go back someday, but in the meantime, I’m loving this social media lite life. And if you’re curious about taking your own break, all I can say is–you’ll gain more than you lose.