Platforms like Facebook and Twitter provided a lifeline for millions during lockdowns, yet others felt compelled to disconnect. Andrea Smith speaks to people who deactivated their accounts over the last 18 months — and never looked back
Like most 22-year-olds, Emily Foley from Galway spent a lot of time watching TikTok videos and following online influencers during lockdown. Yet at the start of the summer, after getting accepted on to a college course in Cork, she decided to give up social media for good.
“I had it all, including TikTok, Instagram and Facebook,” she says. “My whole day was consumed with it, but I wasn’t learning anything valuable.”
Emily found that Instagram affected her adversely, as she feels it places huge expectations and pressure on girls her age to look a certain way. She has far less FOMO these days, she says, and she’s no longer comparing herself to others.
“Sometimes people are excited to post things on Facebook just to see other people’s comments,” she says. “They get obsessed with sharing their lives online, but I think it invades your privacy and people know way too much about you.”
Emily isn’t the only person to become captivated by TikTok. Research shows that the social media platform became increasingly popular among young people during the pandemic. Twitter regained influence when Covid struck, although this could be partly due to ‘doomscrolling’ as people tried to keep track of virus-related news.
Yet while there was a small increase in overall social media usage during the pandemic, an increasing number of high-profile celebrities have deactivated their accounts in recent years.
Ryan Tubridy recently explained that he left Twitter because he realised he was on his phone too much. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left Instagram and Newstalk presenter Ciara Kelly quit Twitter due to online abuse.
Influencer Claire Fullam has joined the ranks of celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Ed Sheeran in taking much-publicised breaks from social media. She took six months off Instagram last December after the threats and intrusion she was experiencing escalated to scary levels.
Having experienced alopecia in 2016, Claire set up an account as her alter ego ‘Claire Balding’ to help others experiencing hair loss. She garnered 82,000 followers because she is hilarious, honest and entertaining. But she also experienced quite a bit of trolling.
The turning point for the 34-year-old was when her address was circulated online and pictures were shared that were taken by someone who was clearly in her front garden.
“I kind of panicked,” she says. “I was like: ‘What the heck is going on?’ It was a step too far for me as I was struggling at the time. I thought I was strong enough to deal with it and bat it off, but I felt vulnerable as I was building myself back after leaving one business and starting a new one. I couldn’t deal with the threats and the viciousness of it all.”
Claire feels that there was a heightened intolerance online because people were fed up with the havoc the pandemic was wreaking. The decision to leave Instagram wasn’t taken lightly, as her new hair products company, Trua, came into existence as a result of her online following.
“It was really hard to say goodbye, but it gave me the time and space in my head to really concentrate on the business,” she says. “I also realised how much time I was spending watching what Pippa O’Connor was having for breakfast or Suzanne Jackson was putting on her face.”
Claire is clear that she has met a wonderful group of people online as well, who have supported her business and live theatre shows. But looking back, she didn’t realise how much other strangers’ words and opinions affected her.
“I realised I was probably drinking too much at times, because I was so depressed about the whole thing and anxious about causing offence if people picked me up the wrong way,” she says. “All that kind of stuff starts to snowball in your mind. So I repurposed myself a little bit and stopped drinking alcohol eight months ago, which was a big deal for me.”
After six months of being offline, Claire began to feel a lot stronger, so made the decision to come back to Instagram in June. It is noticeably different this time around as she is online a lot less frequently and doesn’t share her whole life.
“‘Claire Balding’ is not the same and can’t ever be the same again,” she says. “I think that people have bruised and wounded her a bit too much. I’ve learned boundaries because I’m very much an open book and have realised that people don’t need to know everything about me. Taking a break was amazing and I’d recommend it to anybody, as I’ve come to really value my own time a lot better.”
Dubliner Stephen Eustace gave up using Facebook during Covid, although he felt the platform had become combative before that.
“You’d have people killing one another over Repeal the 8th on your own timeline,” he says. “There was no middle ground there or speaking about it like adults, so you were either a religious nut who didn’t care about women or a baby murderer. And then it happened all over again when Covid came along.”
Stephen felt that Facebook was becoming increasingly politicised, and was less about friendships and more about people’s campaigns and petitions. He decided to deactivate his account last November, which was a big decision as he lives in the Netherlands and used his online presence to keep in touch with home.
He is also a talented photographer who was active posting images, as well as being in a language group.
“I felt Facebook was overwhelming and very addictive and I wasn’t too happy with the way it was going,” he says. “Coming off it ended up being the best decision for me.”
Gráinne Walsh (22) feels the same as she deactivated all of her social media accounts back in January — and hasn’t looked back. She wanted to discover what she wanted from life, without being influenced by other people and online trends.
“Social media can be quite toxic,” she says. “I didn’t really even know who I was and was being someone online for the sake of my peers or a greater audience. I actually wasn’t comfortable with that and didn’t want to look to influencers, friends or anyone else for answers.”
Gráinne feels there are plenty of ways to keep in touch with true friends without going online. Ironically, having lots of people on her social media accounts made her feel less connected, as she compared her perfectly normal life with the highlight reels posted by others.
“It made me feel increasingly lonely because I was seeing what everyone else was doing and it didn’t always live up to my reality,” she says. “It felt like there were ulterior motives to posts at times, as I could see people going to certain places in town so they could tag themselves there and take pictures with the drinks. They weren’t really living in the moment.”
Gráinne feels that the online world has become very consumer-driven to the point where people slavishly follow promoted trends.
She says she used to do it herself until she took a long, hard look at why she was being influenced and why she needed external validation. This wise analysis probably isn’t surprising as she recently graduated with a degree in business and psychology.
Gráinne wouldn’t be human if she didn’t feel a hankering for the days of posting on social media when she’s all dressed up and out somewhere nice, but she feels the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
“I have much more time for my real friends and better time for my headspace,” she says. “There’s more time to go out on walks and I’m much more relaxed in general. I’ve more time to focus on what I really want in life, and I haven’t looked back since I gave up social media.”