Thumbnail by Iliana Garner / North by Northwestern

Medill first-year Lydia Plahn has avoided social media her entire life. During her teenage years, when friends would scroll through TikToks and Reels while hanging out, she’d always turn to the news, a book or maybe her texts. After coming to college, though, she has found it difficult to navigate the extracurricular and social scene without Instagram, and she’s not alone.

When visitors walk through the Weber arch, they can clearly see a Snapcode painted on the pavement underneath it. At Student Organization Fairs, QR codes leading to clubs’ Instagram profiles are found at almost every booth. The Northwestern Dining Instagram page is posted everywhere. Wherever Plahn turns, she faces barriers due to her abstinence from social media.

Bienen first-year Reed Gunn chose to delete social media a few weeks before entering college to curb his screen time. He said he used to be constantly on social media, and realized he needed to quit. He said he encourages others to do the same.

“They make it as addicting as possible, and they don't really have your best interests as priority,” Gunn said. “It makes you feel like everyone else is way happier, way more beautiful and popular than they actually are.”

Gunn’s statement is supported by extensive research. In fact, as of October, 41 states and Washington D.C. are suing Meta, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, for harming youth and teens, according to the New York Times.

According to Weinberg first-year Mia Schmitt, she said she also used to be addicted to social media, especially Snapchat. She said it wasn’t a net positive in her life, so she deleted it.

“I realized it was way more fun to be with people in person than just  snapping pictures of half of my face,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt said she would encourage other students to think critically about the value they’re getting out of social media.

“Every five seconds I’d open Snapchat for no reason,” Schmitt said. “So you just have to be mindful of what you're doing on the app.”

Plahn, unlike Gunn and Schmitt, never installed social media in the first place. This started because she was too scared to ask her parents for Instagram in sixth grade. She made a staunch commitment to stay off social media after writing a school paper on teenage social media use and its effects when she was 13.

Plahn said she was nervous about her lack of social media entering college because it can impact the way you meet people.

“Giving someone your number has a very different connotation than giving someone your Instagram,” Plahn said. “[Instagram is] very casual. There's no commitment.”

Schmitt said that she believes her lack of social media actually helps filter out who her good friends are. She added, though she occasionally feels out of the loop without Snapchat, she knows she can connect with the people she’s close to in person or through messages.

“Most of the time, I don't feel like I'm missing anything,” Schmitt said. “If I really care about my friends, I'm gonna shoot them a text.”

For Plahn, she said making friends isn’t the only struggle she’s faced since starting college. Extracurriculars can also be hard without Instagram. Plahn said she also struggled with staying up-to-date with club meetings and school-wide events. She said she wished organizations would also make announcements over GroupMe or email.

“I always feel like a burden not having [social media],” Plahn said. “I tell my friends, like, ‘Oh my god, stalk these accounts so I can know when their next meeting is.’”

Gunn agreed that not having social media posed some challenges, saying that there was one club he had difficulty joining without Instagram. He said he was able to navigate that using texts, though.

Plahn said one of the main reasons she’s stayed off social media is its mental health impact. She said that one of her big struggles is that she gets “FOMO” (fear of missing out) when others are hanging out without her, so social media wouldn’t be good for her.

Helen Bouygues, founder of the research organization Reboot Foundation, wrote in a 2021 US news article that social media is a “public health crisis” due to its threat to nationwide mental health.

From an outsider’s point of view, Plahn has witnessed the way social media impacts her friends.

“I think that it’s been hard to watch friends or people I know get caught up in the, ‘Well, I want to be just like them (peers). I want to look like them,’ and not be able to realize that's unattainable,” Plahn said.

Plahn said that it’s often common at social events for everyone to pull out their phone during a lull in conversation and go on social media. She said that instead of leaning on her phone as a social crutch, she likes to read.

“I'm notoriously a read-the-news girl,” Plahn said. “I’ll be at social events where everyone will be on their phone, and I'll be reading the news.”

Plahn said she’d encourage others to re-examine their relationships with social media.

“I would 100% encourage other people to quit social media, even if it's just for a short amount of time,” Plahn said.