Here’s what students gained when they dropped social media.

Illustration by Rachel Hawley

Three hours and thirty-four minutes. That’s how long second-year Ellie Buckner has spent on her phone today, and it’s only 6 p.m. Before she stepped back from social media last month, that number was even higher.

Part of what prompted Buckner to reevaluate her social media use was the time it wasted — she’d often emerge from an Instagram “rabbit hole” and realize an hour had passed while she was watching videos of strangers cutting foam. Equally important in her decision, though, was the effect social media had on her mental health.

“I wasn’t actually going out and living my own life,” Buckner says. “It felt like I was watching other people live theirs, and I didn’t like how that made me feel.”

Buckner, transferred this year from Case Western Reserve University and is still acclimating to Northwestern, which compounded this feeling. “A lot of the times when I go on social media, I’ll see events or fun things people are doing at my old school, and that really makes it hard to feel settled and invested here,” she says.

After trying and failing to quit social media cold turkey, her goal now is to be more conscientious of her screen time. She still has Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, but her phone alerts her when she’s spent a total of 40 minutes on each platform. Though Buckner can snooze or ignore the alert altogether, the gentle reminders have made the “rabbit hole” experiences less frequent.

Experts, executives and celebrities alike have made the case for digital detoxing and minimalism. According to recent studies, the average American spends upwards of four hours on their phone every day. A 2017 study published in Harvard Business Review concluded that “the more you use Facebook, the worse you feel.” Screen Time, a feature rolled out with the iOS 12 update in late 2018, allows iPhone users to see how much time they spend on their phone and where exactly they spend it. For first-year Angelina Campanile, seeing the quantified time she spent on her phone propelled her to make a change.

“That’s four hours of my day that I could be studying, or sitting with my friends on the Lakefill, talking to people, or reading a book, or doing something smart that’s actually going to help me in life,” Campanile says. “Checking Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook is not going to help me get a job.”

Though she was more concerned with productivity when she deleted the apps, she noticed an unexpected side effect: her anxiety decreased, too.

Unlike Buckner, Campanile is quitting social media cold turkey — or as cold turkey as she can while still fulfilling her duties as Northwestern Crew’s communications chair and tweeting at least three times a week for Journalism 202. She’s only a week in, and her muscle memory is working against her. “I’ll still pick up my phone and go on my home page and not see the apps there and just kind of swipe back and forth,” she says. “I try to put it face down anytime that I’m studying or talking to someone. I don’t want to see the screen because, once it lights up, then my eyes go there.”

Fourth-year Hayley Miller reached her breaking point last November. She didn’t just deactivate or bury Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat in a folder on the fourth page of her home screen — she permanently deleted them. This drastic measure followed weeks of ramping up her usage and her follower count. Miller was an intern at a marketing agency when she began to apply the same personal branding best practices to her own social media accounts. In two weeks, she gained 400 Instagram followers.

“One day, I spent two hours editing a ton of pictures for Instagram and building a content calendar for the days I would release them,” Miller says. “It just felt so wrong, and it felt so fake. One day it just hit me. I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”

Miller was less concerned with productivity and mental health than with authenticity. “There’s no more showing pictures and pretending to do something,” she says. “In real life, I actually go and I actually do it.” Except for a relapse when she briefly redownloaded Instagram, Miller’s hiatus is still going strong five months later.

Since stepping away from social media, Miller chooses activities for their own sake, not for the ‘gram. She’s spent more time traveling (including her first solo trip to Nashville) and organizing game nights, and she’s even taken up improv. Though Miller was worried about losing touch with friends, especially as her graduation approaches, it’s been less of an issue than she’d expected.

“I think it’s created a lot more intentionality in my life because I find myself going through my contact list and texting people I haven’t talked to in a while,” Miller says. “I’ve had some really meaningful conversations that way, where I wouldn’t have those in the comment section of Instagram.”

Ditching social media seems like an impossible feat for many, but it’s not a problem for second-year Nate Friedle. Besides Facebook, which he uses primarily for Messenger, an Instagram he hasn’t posted on in more than 6 years, and LinkedIn, he’s pretty much “nixed social media from [his] whole life.”

But staying off Facebook, the main hub for campus information, has its drawbacks. “I didn’t know that rush week was happening until, like, the day before,” Friedle laughs. He learns about most upcoming events through word of mouth, but it’s not a perfect system. “I’m out of the loop in a lot of ways a lot of the time,” Friedle admits, “but I think it’s kind of worth it.”

Though he felt some pressure to cultivate his online presence when studying film at DePaul, that pressure eased when Friedle transferred to Northwestern for civil engineering this year. Now, he doesn’t feel a push to present an edited version of himself online.

“Every post, especially on Instagram, is kind of an effort to compare yourself to other people,” he says. “And kind of implied in that effort is a desire to somehow be better than other people — to always have funnier comments, or a more cultured picture, or a fancier location tag. ”

Whether propelled by reasons of mental health, productivity or authenticity, students are finding more time by putting their phones down. The approximately 28 hours freed up each week are a bonus, but being less connected to friends on-and-off campus isn’t easy.

“A lot of friendship is based on tagging in memes now, and I just don’t see those things as quickly as other people,” Buckner says. “Even though it probably doesn’t actually hurt the quality of our relationship, it does make it a little hard to connect to people in the twenty-first century.”