I quit Instagram and Facebook and it made me a lot happier — and that’s a big problem for social media companies

During a recent vacation in Greece, I found that I took fewer pictures because I wasn't trying to keep my feeds up to date. It helped me be more present.

Why quitting Instagram and Facebook made me happier   4 Hours Ago | 03:16

The first time I truly took a break from social media was in 2015, at a summer camp for burned-out adults called “Camp Grounded.”

There were three rules: Take a camp name of your choosing, like Luna or Huckleberry, avoid talking about “W,” meaning work, and ditch all electronics at the door. At an arrival ceremony deep in the California Redwoods, volunteers in hazmat suits zipped up our devices into brown bags, leaving them locked away in a so-called “Robot Decontamination Area.”

That might seem extreme, a total gimmick.

But it prompted some deep discussion among my campmates. I recall arguing with friends about whether our experience was essentially a PG version of Burning Man, or a harbinger of something bigger, a growing discontent among millennials with social media.

At that time, social media companies seemed unstoppable, a daily part of life. Instagram and Facebook were a habit that very few people questioned, with a few notable exceptions. I had well-meaning friends who worked at these companies who believed with an almost cult-like fervor in the positive impact of bringing the world closer together.

That’s all starting to change.

Social media companies, most notably Facebook, have faced a reckoning in the past year, with reports surfacing about an infiltration of Russian propaganda to influence elections, misuse user data, and countless other examples of the platform being used for ill.

As a society, we’re starting to lose faith in our technology icons, especially in light of the questionable decisions made by the once-beloved Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and reports about early Facebook employees who got rich and now have the luxury of preventing their own kids from using social media.

#DeleteFacebook, once unthinkable, is now a very real trend. And it poses a growing threat to Facebook’s bottom line, and its future.

Against this backdrop, in August I made a big decision. I removed Facebook and Instagram apps off my phone, and logged out on the web. I didn’t get around to fully disabling or deleting them, as I wanted to see first how I’d respond to a month-long break. Baby steps, I told myself.

I haven’t been back, and I don’t really miss them at all.

Time not well spent

My break came around the time when Facebook and Instagram introduced “time well spent” features in the summer, which allow users to check how many hours they’ve spent on social media. I checked the activity dashboard after reporting on these changes for CNBC, and learned that I spent more than five hours on Instagram in a single week.

Five hours!

A photo from a vacation in Nicaragua earlier this summer.

Christina Farr
A photo from a vacation in Nicaragua earlier this summer.

Five hours might not seem like that much, but it surprised me. I would have guessed an hour or two.

I told myself that my usage was limited to moments where I was standing in line for coffee or sitting in an Uber in traffic, with nothing better to do.

But if I’m honest with myself, I was sucked in a lot more than that, especially once I started following personal stylists, entrepreneurs and other glamorous influencers on Instagram who served as a kind of benchmark about success in my own life. Some nights, I’d pull up my phone and scroll through their feeds for inspiration about new meals to cook or new outfits to buy.

I started thinking: With five more hours every week, I could read a book, volunteer, spend quality time with a friend, even learn a new language. Maybe I’d be fluent in French again in six months if I took a break from these apps.

Hijacking our minds

Giving up Instagram in the first few weeks reminded me of when I tried to give up coffee, the world’s most popular drug. Just like when I was weaning myself off caffeine, I had regular pangs re-engage with my habit and I felt different, even a bit empty.

It dawned on me after a few weeks that my social media usage was anything but intentional, which gave me a jolt of motivation to keep the detox going.

Occasionally, I noticed myself typing in the letter “F” on a browser to get to Facebook without realizing I was doing it. I’d also mindlessly try to pull up the Instagram app on my iPhone, and would need to remind myself that I’d deleted it for a reason.

That got me thinking more deeply about a conversation I had about four years ago with a former Google project manager, Tristan Harris, who I first met when working on a story about habit-forming apps. He described social media back then as “hijacking our minds.”