I came of age with modern social media, cutting my teeth on LiveJournal and MySpace in high school. Receiving my Amherst email address as a high school senior gave me access to The Facebook, which, in 2005, was still only available to students at select colleges and universities. I spent the next decade fully committed to my online presence, crafting a persona across several platforms and sharing most aspects of my life with my digital community. At the time, I made the conscious choice to stay loyal to my flip phone instead of switching to a smartphone; this meant that my social media experience, while all-encompassing in many ways, was also limited by the fact that I didn’t have a handheld computer in my pocket.
The 2016 presidential election changed the social media landscape in the United States. People who were filled with anxiety and rage turned to social media to express these emotions. Like a digital town square, we used these platforms to share information and connect with our community. The newsfeed became a place for people to stand on their soapboxes and shout; so much shouting. I did my fair share of shouting, but I also made sure to get off my feed and onto my feet, participating as best as I could in civic life outside of the online echo chamber. After the election, we began to question the role that social media was playing in our politics, and I, along with many others, became a lot more critical of the platforms.
In 2017, I decided to take a yearlong sabbatical from all social media platforms. It was a scary step. As someone who had grown up online, I was worried about what would become of me if I simply disappeared from the digital landscape. Who would I be without social media? And would my friendships hold up without the ease of connection that social media provided?
As it turns out, stepping away from social media was a welcome relief. The persistent low-key stress of curating my life for a digital audience evaporated, and that gave me more psychic space to simply exist. It was difficult to adjust at first; gone was my one-stop shop of logging onto Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for friendship, news and entertainment. I had to find new ways to communicate with my community and stay connected with the world at large. But over time, I found that my friendships deepened and my sense of self recalibrated once I eliminated the need to constantly live-action-role-play my life for an external audience.
After the year was over, I reactivated my social media accounts, but their luster had dulled. I’d been to the other side, to a world without likes and retweets and filters—and I’d survived to tell the tale. These platforms no longer had a strong hold on me.
These days, my relationship to social media is loose and uncomplicated. It’s no longer off-limits, like it was during the
sabbatical, but it’s also not part of my day-to-day existence. I use it as a tool rather than a lifestyle. For example, when I moved to a new city last year with a toddler in tow and a baby on the way, I turned to Facebook to find a community of parents in the area. They helped me get my bearings around local kid activities, maternity care and used baby gear. I made a network of lovely friends whom I see regularly IRL and stopped logging on daily.
I’m sure there is so much that I’m missing out on—hilarious memes, personal news, beautiful photos of acquaintances’ children growing up. But I’ve accepted this.
A few months ago, I put out a call to the Amherst community, asking to interview students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents about their own relationships with social media. People reached out from all walks of life, and I spoke to those with a wide variety of experiences, from content creators who’ve reached millions on YouTube to retirees who use social media to share their digital artwork with a handful of friends. I spoke to a student who had never owned a computer or a smartphone before attending Amherst, and to an alumnus who has been on the leading edge of social media since its inception. One former English major I spoke to is now an expert in AI and tech governance: You can’t get more liberal arts than that!
During these conversations, I noticed that people from older generations were a lot more enthusiastic about these platforms. Alumni who didn’t have social media during their Amherst days, like Flora Stamatiades ’88 and Jason Oxman ’93, spoke about how amazing it was to connect online with their classmates many years after graduating. “Prior to email and Facebook,” Stamatiades said, “I kept in touch with maybe 10 people. Now my circle of friends is much wider than who I interacted with at school or even who I was on campus with at the same time.”
She recalls how different her 20th reunion was in 2008 compared to earlier reunions: “Reunion felt much friendlier, because everyone had gotten on Facebook the year before.” As chair of his 25th reunion, Oxman marveled at social media’s ability to bring classmates together even after all these years. “We utilized Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to connect and encourage participation,” he says. “And we had a terrific turnout.” Now, he’s in touch with classmates around the world: “A few months ago, I met up with two classmates in Paris, and I only knew they were living there from social media. It was great.”
Stamatiades started using social media in the early days as the director of organizing at Actors’ Equity. Since then, she has continued to use Facebook alongside her work in the arts and as a leader in political campaigns.
However, Stamatiades recognizes that it’s not all roses and rainbows. When we spoke, she was waiting out a 24-hour ban from Facebook for posting a screenshot of a harassing message she’d received from a stranger, along with a caption that said she wanted to punch someone. “It’s the balance you have to walk,” she says, “living in a virtual world.”
Both Kathy Glista, the math department coordinator at Amherst, and Monica Eddy, parent of a ’22 Amherst graduate, expressed parental appreciation for social media. “It’s a great way to unobtrusively keep in touch,” Glista says. She loves seeing pictures of her kids as they go about their lives. “What they don’t realize is what it was like leaving home before communications.” When Glista’s own mother was serving in World War II, her mother’s parents had no way to keep in touch. “One day, a soldier knocked on their door and told them he’d had breakfast with their daughter.” That was the speed of news at the time.
A few months ago, I met up with two classmates in Paris, and I only knew they were living there from social media. It was great.”
Eddy shared the same sentiments. “Being so far away most of the year, I just wanted to see their faces,” she says of her children. “Snapchat was beautiful in that sense. As a mom, you know what that little, happy face should look like. If they don’t feel well, you see it in their eyes. I got to see them in their natural habitat and get a little taste of their college experience. I felt included. And my heart would rest easy knowing they’re thriving, that their pictures matched the story they were telling me via text.”
Most of the younger people I spoke to, such as Ahmed Aly ’24, shared a distrust and weariness around social media platforms and their addictive nature. “Social media distracts me from things that I want to do and from being more productive,” Aly says. “It negatively affects my extracurricular activities and my social life, because I might waste two, three hours on Instagram, and now I have to study instead of attending a club meeting.”
Rebecca Marshall ’26 says she uses her phone as a coping mechanism: “If I’m nervous, I will be on my phone.” We spoke during first-year orientation, and she mentioned how anxious she was about not knowing anyone, that feeling of going to lunch and not having anyone to sit with. “Social media does a good job of bringing us together,” she says, “and an amazing job of pulling us apart.”
To counter this, Marshall keeps her phone zipped up in her backpack, physically out of reach. She also uses the timer on TikTok (although, she admits, “my brain has gotten used to auto-scrolling past the reminders”).
While older generations seemed to have a more positive approach to social media in general, people across the generational spectrum warned me to stay off TikTok when I mentioned starting an account. “Don’t do it,” said Amanda Lenhart ’96, a tech researcher and “HairTok” enthusiast. “If you struggle with it, I wouldn’t do it. I found when I first started using it that I struggled with the passage of time. I usually think of myself as relatively cognizant of my social media use, but TikTok has really taken the optimization of the algorithm to a brand new peak—and I enjoy it.”
In their 2020 primer Good Intentions, Bad Inventions, Lenhart and a colleague offer a nuanced counterpoint to the dominant narrative that social media is addictive. Not only is the science behind chemical and biological addiction processes pretty nascent, they say, but there may also be a moral panic phenomenon at play. “These particularly new, very often disruptive technologies have created moral panics throughout history,” Lenhart explains, “like with the bicycle and the telephone.”
Moral panics happen when groups that society perceives as needing to be under control (such as women and children) engage in behavior that takes them outside of that control. Given Lenhart’s research findings, she thinks it’s important to push back on the idea that teenagers and younger people should simply disconnect: “I think it doesn’t acknowledge the real price that you pay for disconnecting right now in our culture.”
Speaking to smart, thoughtful members of the Amherst community about social media gave me much food for thought, about my own use of the platforms but also about the complexities of regulating them. I felt invigorated by the enthusiasm, discernment and reflection they shared with me. I hope that the case studies presented here will impact you as well. I didn’t take all of their good advice, though: Against everyone’s better judgment, I created a TikTok account. Jury is still out on whether I survive to tell the tale.
Carmella de los Angeles Guiol ’09 is a writer and digital health educator living in Durham, N.C. She is the creator of Scroll Sanity (carmellaguiol.substack.com), a newsletter and podcast exploring how to create balance in a digital world.
Illustrations by Marc Rosenthal