Life without Instagram

The trials and triumphs of breaking up with Instagram

Illustration by Padraic Rowley

I was sixteen when I first downloaded Instagram. Imbued with the uncanny ability to recite dates and “life-defining” moments: it was September 2013, the day after receiving my Junior Cert results. While lolling on the sofa of a friend’s house, excitedly dissecting every event of the night before, talk soon turned to a new app which had exploded onto the market. I was dimly aware of Instagram’s existence. My younger sister’s constant chatter about fandoms and filters had been my only experience of a world where everyone voluntarily uploaded selfies and corny quotes.


In my eyes, Instagram was nothing more than a polished platform designed to pander to the needs of narcissists. I was a book lover and self-confessed technophobe; the glossy photos glaring out from the screen both enthralled and intimidated me, yet I had little desire to make a foray into something which seemed far removed from reality. After much cajoling on that fateful post-Junior Cert morning, I was stirred into uploading my first photo. Featuring myself and a gaggle of friends in garish makeup from the night before, a “Valencia” filter plastered across our faces, it received a paltry number of likes and a few cutesy comments (“You luk stunning!!” “Gorge girls xxx” “Beauts <3 <3”).


Maybe that marked the moment that I was hooked. Despite the fact that I was sitting pyjama-clad, pale and rumpled with spots dotted across my chin, a multitude of followers instead saw me in a bodycon dress and fake tan, skin smoothed and hair coiffed. Not only could they scroll past my photo but many of them pressed a heart-shaped button, simultaneously validating the entire charade.


I didn’t care much for it at first. Instagram was entertainment, something to relieve the boredom of a rainy afternoon. Occasionally I would feel an unidentifiable pang – envy, worry, shame – as I flicked through the photos of girls I knew and saw the triple-figure “likes” attached. I told myself it was all a game, something I observed from the sidelines and occasionally contributed to. When everyone is playing, however, it isn’t enough to simply watch, and gradually I felt myself slip into the cut and thrust of the Insta-world.


Fast forward three years, and Instagram had radically transformed. Hundreds of hashtags in a single caption were deemed socially awkward, captions had to be crisp and gaudy filters were a definite no. My feed was different too. Although I still flicked past pictures of girl gangs, usually clutching red cups and caught mid-laugh, images of acai bowls, cups of tea, journals, yogis, sunsets, puppies, cityscapes, big blue skies, and inspirational quotes jostled for space too.


The age of the Influencer was well and truly underway. While sitting on the bus or taking a study break or just before getting up each morning, I would trawl through Instagram territory. White teeth, deep tans, immaculate lattes and vegan recipes were my daily digest. Books had once provided a form of escapism but recreational reading was now replaced by regular retreats into a world which I struggled to define – one which seemed to reflect reality, yet, at the same time, could not quite recreate it.


I was not content to sit back and simply stare at other people’s photos. In contrast to my first grainy upload, the content I now posted involved preoccupation and planning. Although embarrassed to admit it, I went on countryside walks for the sole purpose of getting that ideal Insta-shot. I wanted to be artsy and bookish so I took photos of books carefully opened, a cup of tea always on the side. Going out for dinner was an excuse to snap a picture of whatever I was served, hoping it was tastefully arranged on the plate.


Things came to a head in June 2017. During a hiking holiday in Austria, I found myself continuously stopping halfway up various mountains in order to capture the most perfect of perfect shots. There were tufty meadows, brilliant blue lakes and well-trodden mountain paths stretching away to the horizon yet I saw it all whilst gazing intently through a camera. Only a few times did I stand and soak everything up in all its unfiltered glory. Instagram had warped my reality – it made me think I felt present, but really it acted as a tool for me to remain detached from the raw natural world surrounding me.


So I decided to detox. Deactivated my account, deleted the app, vowed that I would not venture back until I knew my addiction was well and truly curbed. At first, it was undeniably difficult. Every time I was on my phone I’d switch from Facebook to Twitter before attempting to find Instagram and thus going around in a circle. As I went through Facebook, I’d see picture after picture of celebrities or social media icons and wonder what their Instagram feed looked like just out of habit. Gradually, however, I began to hugely enjoy life without the ’Gram.


The first noticeable change was a spike in my concentration levels. Instagram, perhaps more so than any other social media platform, offers constant stimulation. Scrolling through images – and attempting to simultaneously process the messages these images provide – is both addictive and exhausting for the human mind. When the subconscious pressure of having to receive a daily dopamine hit from “likes” and follow requests was alleviated, it seemed that my brain breathed a sigh of relief. Although the process was not instantaneous, I rekindled my love for literature and gradually built up to reading for long stretches without a pause, something I had struggled to do whilst in the depth of Insta-addiction. From a college perspective, not having to constantly stop studying for a few minutes to check Instagram undoubtedly enhanced an all-round feeling of motivation.


In Trinity, we are fortunate to have a picturesque campus at our disposal. I am ashamed to say I onced valued College’s campus only for its suitability for an Instagram shot. The campanile, the GMB and the Pav against a blue sky, a crisp autumn day and a carefully curated caption were all ideal ways to get a few “likes” rolling in. Without Instagram I was forced to stop and admire Trinity for what it truly is: a maze of history and honour which pulsates with a passion for learning – a far cry from my shallow serenades to its Insta-worthiness.


The way in which I viewed socialising changed as well. Nights out, drinks with friends and catching up over dinner had once been opportunities to adorn my Instagram even further. Without the internal pressure to capture every moment, stick a filter on it and pass it off as “an amazing night,” social events became far more enjoyable. Rather than wondering when I would take the next strategically arranged photo, I felt engaged and mindful of what was happening around me, able to relax and soak up the atmosphere. Giving up Instagram meant I had staged an internal revolution and the rewards truly were mine to reap.


After five months, I broke the fast and decided to redownload. Instagram has re-entered my life, and, I’ll admit, I still like it. I enjoy following and gaining inspiration from people who have similar interests, seeing what all my friends from school are doing and receiving an insight into the wider world. However, like everything in life, I’ve come to realise that moderation is key. Sure, I enjoy using Instagram, but I also realise the detrimental effects it can have on how I perceive and appreciate the experiences around me.


Life without the app allowed me to understand the level of caution I should exercise around it, and for that I am tremendously grateful. I still deactivate my account fairly regularly, but also some mornings I lie in bed flicking through my feed to see what everyone was up to the night before. Balance will always be an elusive concept, but I think I’ve finally figured out how to handle the enigma that is Instagram.