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Voices: I was a social media addict in my 40s – this is what happened when I gave it up

I know how much more present I am when I’m not tethered to my phone (Getty)
I know how much more present I am when I’m not tethered to my phone (Getty)

I am a 42-year-old woman, and I am addicted to social media.

It feels so embarrassing to write that, but it’s true. Social media addiction is a reality that many people face, and has become a hot topic of debate at the moment as calls are made to ban children from using their phones in school to help protect them from online harm. But it isn’t just kids who need to keep their social media use in check – even I, as an adult woman, was not immune to the siren song of TikTok and Instagram – and it was having a very negative impact on my mental health.

On 31 December, I hit a wall. I could feel myself spiralling as I scrolled through stories and reels of people’s highlights of their year. People “bossing” it at work, “finding balance” in their homes, and totally and utterly “living their best lives”. I could feel a tightness in my chest, and a bilious feeling in my throat.

I actually thought I was going to be sick if I saw one more perfectly curated piece of life. It felt so far from where I was, and I wasn’t doing myself any favours by looking at them anymore, so I did something I never thought I’d do: I deleted Instagram. I decided to try for a whole month, which seemed impossible – but, as of now, I haven’t yet reinstalled it.

It started shortly after the birth of my son. I started obsessively scrolling through parenting accounts during the long hours in the middle of the night while breastfeeding. I felt so isolated and lonely after his birth, and the compulsion to reach into the digital universe was so powerful, I thought it would help me.

I’d always used Instagram for work, and had a pretty healthy relationship with it. I could dip in, but happily come out, safe in the knowledge it wasn’t real life. But living through the global pandemic while pregnant, and then having a newborn during that period, tipped things to an unhealthy point.

I started looking up everything around parenthood: was I doing things right? How could I be better? How could I get back in shape? How could I get my career back on track? How could I get in control of the postpartum anxiety and depression that was slowly but steadily creeping in, weighing me down with a leaden blanket?

The more I scrolled, the worse it got.

It turns out I’m not the only person in my situation, and these stark feelings of anxiety associated with social media use are more common than I realised. There have been widespread studies into the effects of social media on adolescents and young adults – but what about mature adults?

Research conducted in 2021 by Dr Roy Perlis of Harvard University (published in Jama Open Network) showed that middle-aged adults were also susceptible to feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression from social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram. Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer for the American Psychological Association, responded to this research, saying “social media is hijacking the need for social interaction with something very artificial and insufficient… [it] is the empty calories of social interaction”.

That’s exactly what it feels like. I was an anxious wreck after scrolling through the apps in the early hours of the morning, convinced I was a failure, incapable of achieving anything ever again.

I could regularly spend up to two hours a day on and off Instagram, dipping in and out while I was preparing breakfasts, lunches and dinner, or while my son napped – and then spend at least an hour before bed losing myself in “positive” accounts that only made me feel worse.

Things were getting out of control. I was out with my son recently on a bright early winter’s morning, him happily chatting away in his pushchair as I was scrolling through my phone – having fallen yet again down a wormhole trying to find ways to feel more connected to my world. I was barely looking up while reading advice about “getting outside in nature” and “spending time with loved ones” – until my son broke my concentration, saying, “Mummy, put phone in pocket”.

What was I doing? I was walking along the seafront in the town where we live, barely connecting with my son and missing the stunning winter sunrise happening before my eyes.

So what happened when I deleted it? At first, there was a wave of panic – or, as the cool kids call it, FOMO (fear of missing out). What if I didn’t know about the latest wine trend? Or the solution to my toddler’s picky eating? Or how to bust the belly fat that has accrued after three years of giving myself over totally to my son?

The reflex to look at your phone when you have a brief moment – such as a queue in the supermarket, or when my son was engrossed in an activity – was shocking. I could feel myself twitching if I didn’t have my phone near me – but I had to change. I decided to leave my phone in a different room when I was at home, and banned it from the bedside (turns out you don’t need an alarm when you have a six-year-old running around).

And then something wonderful happened – the good feelings came, and I started to feel a liberating sense of relief and lightness.

We aren’t supposed to live with a constant lens into other people’s lives – especially when that life isn’t entirely real. The comparison culture that it creates led me to feel utterly paralysed in my own professional space. As soon as I came off Instagram, I could feel my confidence growing and my mind starting to generate ideas without the panic that I wasn’t good enough. My own judgement and intuition had been clouded by others, and that’s stifling when you’re trying to emerge from the early years of motherhood.

The reality is that I do need to use social media for work, but by limiting my use and not constantly scrolling, I feel I can approach it with balance and not obsession. I know how much more present I am when I’m not tethered to my phone. I will regularly delete Instagram when I’m away with my family, and at weekends too. I’m going to hold very firm boundaries around usage.

The only “look” I want as a mother, professional, friend, daughter, partner is my look – not hampered by what others are doing or saying, even if it’s well meaning. I may not be living my “best life” according to the algorithm, but I’m definitely living my life. Yes, it may be messy and chaotic – but it’s also fulfilling, beautiful and full of great hope and possibility.

Rosamund Hall (DipWSET) is a wine consultant, merchant and writer