In a series of six posts (here are links to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) I explain, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, how we can free ourselves from our addiction to social media. These teachings are found in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which outlines five strategies for overcoming compelling trains of thought and the urges that accompany them.
“Vitakkasanthana Sutta” literally means “the Discourse on Quieting Thinking,” but I’m going to call it “the Social Media Sutra.” I do this mainly because it’s a more convenient and catchy monicker than a literal translation is, but also because it reminds us that these teachings can be directly applied in this important aspect of our lives.
So now for the fifth and final tool. This one may surprise you.
The last resort tool that the Buddha offers us is sheer willpower.
With teeth clenched and tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, the practitioner should squeeze, squash, and torture mind with mind. As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end.
That all sounds kind of harsh. And the image is rather violent as well.
It’s like a strong man,” the discourse says, “who grabs a weaker man by the head or throat or shoulder and squeezes, squashes, and tortures them.
You might be surprised at the Buddha teaching such a forceful method, but sometimes we need to be strict with ourselves.
It’s made very clear, though, that using willpower is a last resort, to be employed only when other methods have failed.
Sometimes I’ve found this useful. I can find myself, late at night, surfing the internet. It’s all good stuff — articles about science and psychology and Dharma — but it’s depriving me of sleep. And I’ll suddenly find myself experiencing a kind of disgust with what I’m doing and almost slam down the lid of my laptop. That sudden surge of a kind of healthy distaste overpowers my craving, which then loses all of its power over me.
But the whole concept of willpower is suspect. When I’m suddenly overcome with disgust and close my laptop, that’s not really something that happens because of willpower. It just happens. I’m surfing away (un)happily, and then suddenly I’m disgusted and the period of compulsive surfing is over.
There are, fortunately, much better ways to overcome your urges.
Sneakier Ways to Use Willpower
You might even call them sneakier ways. The sneaky aspect is that you use your willpower when you’re not actively caught up in craving. That’s when using force, for want of a better mind, is most effective. What we do is to make decisions that limit the ability of our active tendencies to control us.
Delete Social Media Apps
For example, if you delete your social media apps from your phone, that’s pretty forceful. It becomes much harder to access those services. Sure, you could use your phone’s internet browser instead, but that’s a bit clunkier.
Block Social Media Sites
And if you want to go a bit further, then you can use your phone’s parental safety settings to designate Twitter, or Facebook, or any other social media site you’re addicted to as an adult site and block it entirely. That way you can’t access those sites even in a browser.
Or on a computer there are browser plugins you can use that limit the amount of time you can spend on social media.
Delete Social Media Accounts
Going a bit further, you can delete your social media accounts altogether! That’s a very effective use of “force”. It actually does take a lot of willpower to do this. Very few people can do this.
I did this, though, with my Instagram account. Instagram is one of the more benign social media sites, but I found myself feeling disappointed when I shared an image and didn’t get many likes or comments. I craved validation, and wasn’t getting it. I didn’t like being that way, so I just deleted my account.
I also deleted my Facebook account. I have to say I loathed Facebook. Yes, it was a way I could keep up with my far-flung tribe of relatives. But it turned out that some of those relatives weren’t much fun to follow. And even on the Buddhist Facebook groups I followed, the conversations tended to degenerate into arguments. Plus there’s the whole thing about Facebook and privacy, the thing about Facebook being a conduit for political propaganda, and so on.
So I no longer have a personal Facebook account.
Research shows that quitting social media makes us happier. Why don’t more of us do that? It’s because of addiction, and the ways our minds lie to us. Your addiction will find ways to talk you out of deleting your accounts, telling you how essential social media are to your happiness. It’s all lies, of course. These things didn’t even used to exist, and somehow we all got by.
So I had deleted my Facebook and my Instagram accounts, and then the only social media service I had was Twitter.
I spent less time on Twitter than I had on the other services, but it still became a bit of a problem. For one thing, Twitter is a bit of an outrage factory. It’s full of people who like to get attention by showing how outraged they are about various things. And they enjoy getting other people outraged as well.
Now that had a bad effect on my sense of well-being, either because I’d get outraged or because I’d find myself exhausted just witnessing it.
For another thing, Twitter was very time-consuming. Sometimes I’d check Twitter on my phone first thing in the morning, and be sucked in for forty minutes or an hour. You can of course scroll endlessly on Twitter (that’s one of the features designed to keep us addicted) and there were always links to articles and videos, some of them very interesting.
So there is one final “willpower” trick that I’d like to offer you. This is the one that got me off of Twitter, made me happier by keeping me away from sources of outrage, and also freed up enormous amounts of time. I’m pleased to say that as a result of this one trick, I have no problem staying away from Twitter.
Here it is.
Get Locked Out of Your Account
This is a more forceful version of the third tool, “ignoring and forgetting” social media by putting it out of site and out of mind — for example by not having your phone by the side of your bed when you sleep. The third tool is, in effect, reducing temptation.
This is similar, but what you’re doing is creating a barrier that makes it hard for you to get into your account. You’re not deleting your account, which has advantages (for example you still have all your history there, no one can “name squat” by taking your name, and you can access your account in an emergency).
The barrier works like this:
- You log into your account
- You go to the “change password” setting
- You enter an impossible-to-remember password (certain browsers can create one for you, or your password manager, if you use one, can create one for you, or can you can use an online tool). Next comes the really important part.
- You don’t let your browser or password manager remember your new password. And you don’t make a note of it.
- Finally, you log out.
Now you’re locked out of your social media account. It still exists, so no one can name squat it.
Now, you can, in theory, get back into your account. There’s a “forgot password” link that you can use to send yourself a link to get back in again. But it’s an extra barrier. And for me, at least, that’s enough to have kept me out of my Twitter account for months.
So my current social media status is:
- Instagram: account deleted.
- Facebook: account deleted.
- Twitter: account dormant, because I’m locked out.
My current emotional status is:
- Happy not to be in the competitive, argumentative world of social media.
- Happy to have more time on my hands.
- Happy to feel I’m more in control of my life.
So it’s this final tool that worked for me in quitting my last connection with social media. Locking myself out of my account is like the strong man grabbing the weaker one and restraining him.
Actually, and this is important, it’s more like the weaker man waiting until the strong man has walked into a room, and then locking the door so that he’s trapped inside.
The sneaky part of the sneaky willpower approach is that you’re not confronting your addictive urges when they’re active. When you’re in the throes of addictively using social media or the internet, it’s very hard to do anything about it. Those urges are STRONG. So at some other time you take control. You stage a coup. You delete your apps, you block social media sites on your phone or computer, you lock yourself out.
None of these things is foolproof, but you’re creating strong barriers to acting out on your addictive urges, and those barriers can be enough. They have been for me.
To summarize this series, what we’ve been doing is exploring the five tools that the Vitakkasanthana Sutta offers us to help us free our minds from obsessive thinking and compulsive urges.
- We’ve seen how we can replace addictive urges with skillful behavior by trusting that we are enough, that this moment is enough, by trusting in the power of love over anger, and by trusting in the Dharma.
- We’ve seen how we can overcome social media addiction both by looking at its drawbacks, and also by creating a positive appreciation of the skillful things in our lives — what creates joy, peace, and meaning.
- We’ve explored how we can look at how addictive thinking and actions arise when we’re not mindful of our feelings, and how we can create a mindful and self-compassionate pause in which wiser and healthier actions can arise.
- And we’ve explored how, as a last resort, we can use willpower to disengage from addictive activities on the internet, and how we can most effectively use our willpower at times we’re not actively caught up in craving. For example we can make it harder for ourselves to connect to social media sites, or even delete our accounts.
Thank you for joining me in this series on using the Dharma to overcome social media addiction. There’s truly nothing I enjoy more than exploring and sharing the Dharma, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore our practice together. I’m grateful also to Tricycle magazine for asking me to record the videos that led to this series of articles.
May we all continue to make progress in overcoming the obstacles that hold us back from living with mindfulness, compassion, and joy.