I’m a teen who used to spend hours a day scrolling. Here’s how I curbed my social media habit.

When an app told me I was on track to spend 17 years of my life on screens, I knew something had to change.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

As a member of Gen Z, I was introduced to technology at a young age. It started out innocent: watching “Kim Possible” reruns on YouTube and creating Minecraft servers with my twin brother. But as my interests changed, so did the content I consumed.

I saw teen lifestyle influencers amass millions of followers on YouTube simply for sharing the mundane details of their daily lives. I obsessively watched them do makeup in their large houses and style trendy clothes that I could never afford. I began to hate the one-bedroom apartment I lived in, with its thrift store furniture and occasional mouse sighting. The message, to me, was clear: I would never be worth watching.

Kate Romalewski (Courtesy photo)

This culture of comparison only intensified when I got my first phone at age 10 and downloaded Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. I spent hours finding the perfect photos to post on Instagram, analyzing selfies of my prepubescent face for imperfections. Curating the perfect profile was everything to me. In reality, I was a ball of anxiety. I remember looking in the mirror and wishing I was somebody else.

After five years of heavy social media use, I deleted Instagram from my phone for the first time in January 2021. The fresh start lasted for all of three weeks, after which I broke down and logged back in from the web. I deleted TikTok, too, but would re-download it intermittently and end up scrolling for hours. It was confusing for me; I hated social media and recognized how awful it made me feel, but I could not put it down.

This past summer, I saw an ad for the Opal app, ironically while in one of the TikTok rabbit holes I had fallen down. It claimed to limit screen time use, and I knew I needed all the help I could get. To set up an account, it requires you to enter the average amount of time you spend on screens per day. I estimated 3-4 hours, and Opal informed me that meant I was on track to spend 17 years of my life on a screen.

As I had recently turned 17, I was shaken. I imagined myself on my deathbed, regretting everything I had missed out on. In 17 years thus far, I’ve experienced elation and sadness, highs and lows, and moments that have shaped me forever. What if I had lost out on my entire life because I was too busy experiencing other people’s digital ones?

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that kids ages 8-18 spend an average of 7.5 hours on a screen each day. That doesn’t even factor in necessary technology use, such as online homework. I’ve scrolled for five minutes, four hours, even 12 hours at a time, and yet cannot recall a single thing I’ve gained from it. Even if I learned something new or saw anything interesting, it was drowned out by the sheer amount of other random media I saw as I scrolled on.

I hated social media and recognized how awful it made me feel, but I could not put it down.

If something constantly drains you, makes you feel not good enough, and is almost always a source of stress, why would you keep using it?

I had asked myself this question for years, but could never conjure a clear answer. Maybe it’s because when you tell a person you have no social media, you’re immediately met with suspicious eyes and interrogating questions. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know how to spend my free time without it. Maybe it’s the dopamine hit.

I was tired of the cycle: using social media, hating myself after so much self-comparison, hating myself even more for using the apps in the first place, deleting social media apps, getting bored, and re-downloading the apps because I was sure that this time would be different.

After deleting my social media again last summer, I used Opal to restrict all the non-essential apps on my phone every day of the week. Every time I try to open one of them, the app reminds me that I set a time limit for a reason; that usually makes me put the phone down.

I try to be more mindful now with how I use my time. On the subway, I no longer sit hunched over my phone. I simply look around, studying the mosaic of faces walking in and out of the car. In my moments of free time, I’ve replaced screens with reading, journaling, painting, or using technology in ways that bring me joy, like talking to friends or watching comforting TV shows, such as “New Girl” “Modern Family,” and “Vampire Diaries.”

Not that I’ve eschewed social media completely. I still use Instagram once in a while to post photos I’ve taken. I occasionally watch a TikTok video a friend has sent my way. But these apps no longer control me. When I feel myself switching from casual use to obsessive habits, I simply delete them from my phone. I know now that I am in control of my own life, and it is my responsibility to choose pastimes that are productive, positive, or both.

My generation gets a lot of grief about our excessive technology use, and I don’t think all of it is justified. We were born into a society that relies on technology to thrive. Online life is inextricably intertwined with in-person life: Many jobs are remote, long-distance relationships are maintained over smartphones, and search engines have replaced encyclopedias. It’s unfair to blame us for becoming victims of a society that was built around us. That being said, everyone has the power to stop social media from negatively affecting them.

Talk to the person sitting next to you instead of scrolling through photos of your friend from middle school’s most recent family vacation. Find your new favorite book to read before bed instead of watching meaningless videos. Minutes turn into hours, hours to days, days to years.

I don’t want to spend 17 years of my life on screens, and now, I know that I don’t have to.

Kate Romalewski is a senior at a New York City public high school. In her free time, she loves to read, journal, and spend time with loved ones. She is the copy editor of her school’s newspaper, the 411 Press, and is the co-president of the school’s Sexual Assault Prevention Board.