Recently I recorded a series of four talks for “Tricycle” magazine, discussing how tools from the Buddhist tradition can help us to overcome our addiction to social media. The talks won’t appear online until January next year but in the meantime I thought I’d turn my notes into a series of articles — probably six in total. I’ll go beyond what I said in those talks because of course as soon as you give a talk you realize all the things you could have said but didn’t!
First, though, what do I mean by social media addiction? I don’t mean simply enjoying using social media. I mean addiction in the sense of the compulsive use of social media despite it having harmful consequences for ourselves and others. Compulsion means that we feel out of control: have great difficulty stopping ourselves. Compulsion means that the thought of quitting may lead to powerfully unpleasant feelings. Usually compulsion leads to shame, and we become dishonest about just how addicted we are.
I’m going to use the term “social media” in a rather broad way. I don’t just mean social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. What I say may well have relevance for those who find themselves hooked on online games, or even who find themselves compulsively checking the news.
I put my hand up as being a social media addict. Because of the way I teach, I spend a lot of time online, and so I’ve had to deal with getting sucked into social media. And of course like most people I carry a so-called “phone” around with me, although it’s a device that I hardly ever use for making phone calls on. Instead it’s a kind of glass doorway that leads to a world of endless distraction.
So, spending a lot of time online, and carrying around a device that allowed me to do that any time I wanted, I’d often find myself spending way too much time on the internet. My work would suffer, and sometimes I’d stay up too late, reading fascinating articles, usually about science and psychology. What I was reading was good, but I just couldn’t stop, and I’d end up depriving myself of sleep.
Sometimes there were “bonus” problems—for example when I’d get involved in online disputes. Those would not only give rise to anger, but would sometimes leave me feeling quite anxious, so that my heart would pound when I was logging in to my social media accounts. Or I’d find that I would crave attention. I found myself logging in, anxious about whether my posts had been “liked” or shared. All of these are, of course, forms of suffering.
I don’t much like suffering, so the question naturally arose for me, “How can my Buddhist practice help me with addiction to online activities?”
I’d like to share some of the tools I’ve found useful, in case you have similar patterns of getting hooked online.
The Buddha of course didn’t say anything about the internet or social media, but he did have a lot to say about dealing with and overcoming compelling patterns of thought and behavior. There’s one discourse, or sutta, in particular that I think gives a good overview of the richness of the tools that he offered us. It’s called the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which could literally be translated as the “Discourse on Quieting Thinking.”
Vitakka means “thinking” and santhana literally means a resting place, and by extension means “end, stopping, cessation.”
Thinking here doesn’t mean just the inner sound of us talking to ourselves, or even imagined imagery. It includes the urges that are entangled with those thoughts. In fact, sometimes you’ll find yourself acting on an urge without having any verbal thought at all. You just find yourself picking up your phone and opening a social media app. There isn’t necessarily any inner talk accompanying those actions.
So, fundamentally, this discourse is about letting go of unhelpful urges, or unhelpful habits.
The Vitakkasanthana talks about quieting these urges in the context of meditation, but the principles it outlines can be used in any context in our lives, including when we’re on social media. In a way you could think of the Vitakkasanthana Sutta as the Social Media Sutra.
The discourse offers five tools, and it’s suggested that you start with the first one, and then if that doesn’t work you give the next one a try, and so on. To give you an overview of the five tools, they are:
- Switching our attention from unskillful or unhelpful patterns or activity to more skillful or helpful patterns.
- Examining the drawbacks of your unhealthy urges, especially as contrasted with healthier ones.
- Simply ignoring or turning away from our unskillful urges, not making any effort to get rid of them, but also not acting on them or allowing our attention to be drawn into them.
- Becoming aware of the causes and conditions that are bringing our unhelpful urges into being, so that we can prevent them arising in the first place.
- Using sheer willpower to overcome our addictive urges. This can actually be much more subtle than it sounds!
For each tool there’s an illustration. Some of those are engaging and instructive, although some others aren’t so immediately helpful.
I didn’t sit down with the Vitakkasanthana Sutta in hand and try to figure out how to apply it to social media; instead I needed to talk about the various ways that I’ve worked with addictive behaviors, and it occurred to me that the five tools the Buddha offered provided a handy framework for doing so.
The five approaches above provide us with an impressive collection of tools for overcoming addictive behaviors, as well as the anger, anxiety, and so on that accompany them. I’ll be going through each in turn, telling you what the Buddha said (including the illustrations he gave), and making the tools practical.
That’s it for today. I hope you’ll enjoy this series of blog posts. If you want to make sure you don’t miss any, I’d suggest subscribing to Wildmind’s newsletter.
In the meantime, I’d suggest that you notice any addictive patterns of behavior around your social media use. In what ways does it lead to suffering? In what ways does your compulsion manifest? What happens if you give up social media for a day, or two days, or a week?