In a series of posts I explain, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, how we can free ourselves from addiction to social media. You can find these teachings in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta. This is an ancient teaching which outlines five strategies for overcoming our compelling urges. (Here are links to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.)
This week we’re going to look at the second tool, or strategy. This is where we examine the drawbacks of having a mind that is out of control.
I love this particular description because it contains a truly graphic and visceral image.
The discourse says:
They should examine the drawbacks of those thoughts: ‘So these thoughts are unskillful, they’re blameworthy, and they result in suffering.’ As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Suppose there was a woman or man who was young, youthful, and fond of adornments. If the corpse of a snake or a dog or a human were hung around their neck, they’d be horrified, repelled, and disgusted.
Isn’t that a great image? I’ll come back to say more about it later.
The application of this tool to social media is quite obvious. We need to look at the disadvantages of social media, and of our addiction to it.
We need to do this to counteract the way that Facebook, Twitter, and so on, steal our attention.
Now it’s important that we learn to recognize that these technologies are actually designed to be addictive. Social media have been carefully engineered to hook into our brains’ reward circuits. They do this so that we will keep coming back for more stimulation. They demand that we keep coming back to see if anyone has liked, forwarded, or commented on our posts. They hook us by making their streams endless, by autoplaying videos so that you have to take action to disengage, and by showing us when someone is composing a reply to something we’ve written.
The Drawbacks Effects of Social Media
There’s now lots of evidence of the negative effects of social media. We’re not just talking about a few people who become serious addicts and have their lives completely ruined. There are of course people for whom this does happen.
According to a 2019 study on social media addiction, carried out by researchers at Michigan State University and Monash University in Australia, people who use Facebook heavily have impaired decision-making skills to the point where they perform as poorly in psychological tests as people who are addicted to cocaine or heroin.
We Waste Time
But we are virtually all hooked. According to one study, the average person now spends four hours a day on their phone.
We Become Depressed and Lonely
Social media make us anxious and depressed They make us feel lonely.
They con us into thinking that we’re doing poorly in comparison to others, because other people tend to show a falsely upbeat view of their own lives on social media.
Research shows that the more time we spend on social media, the more our sense of happiness and life satisfaction drop.
We Allow Ourselves to be Manipulated
And of course, bad actors are using social media for social engineering. They’ve become propaganda tools designed to influence our political decision-making. These propaganda tools are so carefully designed that we don’t even realize we’re being manipulated and sometimes will deny it when it’s pointed out to us. In perhaps the ultimate irony, Facebook discovered that a Russian internet agency had set up a page on mindfulness, of all things, as part of an attempt to influence elections in the US.
The main drawback for me, personally, was the sheer amount of time that I used to waste on social media. If I wasn’t careful I could pick up my phone in the morning and easily spend an hour or more reading news stories and browsing Twitter. That’s time that I could use going for a walk, or meditating, or working. Social media has an opportunity cost.
So these are some of the disadvantages of social media. But there are many others: there’s the way we stay up too late, staring at screens. There’s the way we reduce our productivity by constantly interrupting our work to check for new updates. There’s the way we get so absorbed in our devices that we don’t pay attention to our loved ones (I see so many parents ignoring their children!). There’s the way we get into online conflicts and the way we find it hard to stay focused the way we used to. Presumably all this is very familiar to you.
Suffering Masquerading as Happiness
The thing about an addiction is that even though it has a negative influence on our lives it promises to be a source of happiness. This is a phenomenon that the Buddha included in his teachings of the vipallasas (or viparyasas in Sanskrit if you’re more familiar with that language).
Vipallasa is a word that we could translate as “cognitive distortion.” These distorted ways of seeing things classically include assuming that impermanent things will last forever, seeing things that are ethically unattractive as attractive, and seeing things that are not who we are as being intrinsic to our sense of self.
The cognitive distortion here is our assumption that things that cause unhappiness can make us happy. It’s our assumption that happiness comes from participating in social media, playing online games, reading the news, and so on. It’s our fear that we’ll be deprived and suffer if we don’t do these things.
From FOMO to JOMO
One way people talk about this is in terms of the acronym FOMO. This stands for the Fear of Missing Out. When I first thought about deleting my Facebook account I worried that I might lose contact with distant relatives. I worried that I might not learn about significant events in my friends’ lives. That I might miss breaking news, and so on.
Surely, I thought, giving up my Facebook and Instagram accounts would reduce my sense of well-being. But I found that the opposite was the case. The less I used social media, the more content I was. I was far more productive. I spent more time meditating. I could once more focus on reading a book with full attention, undistractedly. And I enjoyed it. This was a huge blessing!
Cutting my ties with social media, or most of them at least, was joyful and liberating. Instead of experiencing FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out, I experienced JOMO — the Joy of Missing Out.
Treating Our Urges With Skepticism
So this second tool from the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, examining the drawbacks of our immersion in social media, is a way of undermining our addiction. It helps us to look more clearly at our desire to go onto social media, or to stay hooked on it. It helps us to regard those desires with a bit more skepticism.
We can start to see thoughts of quickly checking our Facebook or Twitter accounts as false promises. These thoughts are saying “This will make you happy. This will give your life meaning. You need this.” And we can see more starkly that in reality, our addictive use of social media makes us unhappy. We can see that it takes us away from things that are truly meaningful.
Recognizing What Is Not Fitting
I’d like to come back to the image that the Buddha uses: It’s like “a woman or man who was young, youthful, and fond of adornments. If the corpse of a snake or a dog or a human were hung around their neck, they’d be horrified, repelled, and disgusted.”
That’s a powerful image! Imagine you’re all dressed up in your finest clothes ready to go out somewhere, and someone were to drape the stinking corpse of some animal around your neck! How gross! So this image encourages us to recognize the unwholesomeness of our addictions. We can learn to see that social media addiction is this gross thing in our lives, like a rotting corpse.
But let’s not ignore the finery. The images makes no sense unless the person with the dead animal draped around their shoulders is conscious of what’s good and wholesome in their lives. That’s there too. It’s important to recognize that fact.
So we should not just see the presence of the unskillful in our lives, but also recognize the things we do that bring us a sense of peace and joy.
Honoring What’s Skillful In Our Lives
It’s only when we recognize and honor the skillful in our lives that the unskillful looks out of place.
If we were just to reflect on the drawbacks of online addiction, we’d probably just feel bad about ourselves. Ironically, that might prompt us to spend even more time online, because that’s where we go to escape things we don’t like. So as we reflect on the drawbacks of online addiction, we need also to turn our attention to more wholesome activities. These include things like being more fully present with ourselves and with anything we happen to be doing, meditating, being present for others, focusing on meaningful work, attending to the simple pleasures of life, and so on.
One thing I’ve found as I’ve disengaged from social media is that I’ve rediscovered the joys of immersing myself deeply in a good book — something that at one point I worried that I might no longer be able to do. I’ve also rediscovered the joys of listening to classical music, and of going for walks. I’m rediscovering the delights of simplicity and presence.
Two Things to Do
So I’d suggest that you do two things.
- First, spend some time listing what, for you, are the biggest drawbacks of addiction to social media.
- Second, also make a list of the simple things in life that you find most nourishing. Make a list of the good things that social media takes you away from.
And then when you find yourself caught up in addictive behaviors online, call those two lists to mind.
Create a sense of — it’s strong word but a good one — “disgust” with addictive behavior, but balance that by creating an attraction to what’s wholesome and nourishing in your life — things that make you truly happy and that bring you a sense of peace and meaning.
So what have we learned today? We’ve learned that:
- We can replace the fear of missing out with the joy of missing out.
- One way we can weaken our addictions is to reflect on their negative influence on our lives.
- Social media have many such negative effects.
- We need to consciously reflect on those negative effects. This is because the addictive circuits in our brains rely on cognitive distortions, or vipallasas. These tell us that we need the object of our addiction in order to be happy.
- We also need to turn to what is positive in life. We need to recognize what brings us joy, and peace, and a sense that we’re living in a meaningful way.
These reflections help us to see our addictive behavior as something gross. They give us a clearer sense of who we are and how we want to live our lives. They help us to see addiction as something that just doesn’t fit with who we are and who we want to be. They help us to recognize and undermine our addictive tendencies, so that we can become freer, and happier, and more in control of our minds.
To read Part 3 of the Social Media Sutra, click here: Just Turn Away.