“Social networks are here to stay,” is the conventional wisdom of the day. However, my investigation of almost 100 research articles about Facebook and social media, along with my personal experience, indicate that social networking causes serious problems. Sure, there are benefits, particularly to those separated by geography or mobility concerns, or those in particular groups that find it difficult to meet in person (those with chronic illness, the socially anxious, etc.) But for most of us, social networks are an occasionally pleasurable addiction that has longer-term consequences. I detail the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens in my completed manuscript, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks.
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Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein had this to say: “I heartily recommend Ravi Chandra's manuscript FACEBUDDHA, a wonderfully written, exciting and at times elegiac and rhapsodic presentation of the potentials and difficulties of connecting in relationship - especially in our modern age of technology and as seen through a Buddhist lens. Ravi Chandra is a wonderful storyteller, a psychiatrist, a Buddhist student and teacher, an Asian American, and an able, eloquent writer with the capacity and personal experience to address all the contemporary issues this book brings together. I think the book will be inspiring to many, many people.”
Here, from my chapter “The Facebook Bardo” are 10 reasons to unplug from social media (by no means an exhaustive list – you’ll have to read my book for more!):
Amy Muise and her colleagues have done extensive research on the phenomenon, and reported about it in papers such as “More Information than You Ever Wanted: Does Facebook Bring Out the Green-Eyed Monster of Jealousy?” The answer is, very likely, yes. She demonstrated that trait jealousy (or innate tendencies to jealousy) was the most powerful predictor of “Facebook jealousy” (on a scale created to assess the experience of jealousy in the Facebook context), BUT a significant portion of Facebook jealousy was positively correlated with time spent on Facebook. One study participant said “I was already a bit jealous and insecure, but I think that Facebook has definitely made me much much worse.”
As status conscious beings, we are prone to make comparisons. But we normally can have boundaries that help keep us from getting entangled in them. Facebook eliminates the boundary, and we constantly compare ourselves with others. Worse still, we’re comparing our worst moment (“here I am, alone, sitting in my pajamas at my computer screen”) with other’s best moments (“look at me and my awesome life!”)
A recent study by Kross and colleagues showed quite definitively that the more time young adults spent on Facebook, the worse off they felt. Subjects were texted five times daily for two weeks to answer questions about well-being, direct social contact and Facebook use. The people who spent more time on Facebook felt significantly worse later on, supporting a causal connection. The effect was small but significant, even after controlling for factors such as depression and loneliness. Interestingly, those spending significant time on Facebook and also reporting moderate or high levels of direct social contact also reported worsening well-being. The authors hypothesize that comparisons and emotions triggered by Facebook were carried into real-world contacts, worsening them. This despite other data showing that direct social contact improves subjective well-being. The Facebook bardo worsens our feelings about ourselves, and might damage the healing power of real-world relationships. (Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, Park J, Lee DS, et al. Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PLoS ONE 8(8): e69841. doi:10:1371/journal.pone.0069841)
Early in my psychiatry residency, I discovered that my patients could create feelings in me, beyond the appropriate caring reactions. Some patients, by the way they expounded on their accomplishments and knowledge would cause me to feel insecure. I described this to my mentor, and he immediately recognized it as a case of ‘projective identification.’ These patients were narcissists, with a tendency to overvalue themselves and devalue others – and I had a complementary “hook” in my psyche for feeling insecure around such people. As soon as I recognized what was happening, the sensation disappeared, and I could productively work with them.
What is Facebook but an incorrigible narcissist, always telling you how wonderful they are? And no wonder that many people become unhappy with Facebook: they are being “hooked” by a form of projective identification, from a collective source instead of any single person. A provocative study from Singapore highlights the very problem. Test subjects found to be low in narcissism actually perceived their friends’ lives to be better than theirs, and subsequently rated their social well-being lower. More narcissistic people tended not to do this, presumably because they robustly overvalue themselves to begin with. Moreover, these narcissistic people tended to get a better view of themselves from others’ perspectives, while just the opposite was true for the least narcissistic individuals. Facebook seems to be better for self-centered people! (Qiu L, Lin H, Leung A.K-y. How Does Facebook Browsing Affect Self-awareness and Social Well-being: the Role of Narcissism. 2010 Proceedings of the International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology, Taiwan)
85% of one sample of undergraduates reported some level of Facebook-induced stress (Campisi J, Bynog P, McGehee H, Oakland JC, Quirk S, Taga C, Taylor M. Facebook, stress, and incidence of upper respiratory infection in undergraduate college students. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2012 Dec; 15(12):675-81)
Tiggeman and Slater in Australia found that the more time teen girls spent online and especially on Facebook, the more they internalized “the thin ideal, body surveillance, and the drive for thinness.” (Tiggeman M, Slater A. Netgirls: The internet, Facebook, and body image concern in adolescent girls. Int J Eat Disord 2013, May 25 doi: 10.1002/eat.22141)
Facebook and social media can remove the stigma from negative behaviors, such as alcohol and substance abuse, and make them more acceptable, especially to minors (Litt DM, Stock ML. Adolescent alcohol-related risk cognitions: the roles of social norms and social networking sites. Psychol Addict Behav 2011 Dec; 25(4): 708-13) One study found that “portraying oneself as a drinker is considered by many young people to be a socially desirable component of identity” on Facebook, thus helping to encourage alcohol abuse. (Ridout B, Campbell A, Ellis L. ‘Off your Face(book)’: alcohol in online social identity construction and its relation to problem drinking in university students. Drug Alcohol Rev 2012 Jan; 31(1): 20-6)
8. Enhancing your own narcissism
Narcissism is on the rise, and empathy is at an all time low, according to some very good research (Zaki J. What, me care? Young are less empathetic. 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-me-care). There are many causes, but Facebook clearly can be a self-amplification tool, and thus can stoke the fire of narcissism – the very opposite of transcendence. Reducing your “friends” to an “audience”, app-endages from whom you crave validation, is clearly narcissistic.
The Buddha said, “the mind, in contact with pleasant experiences, develops desire.” Our need for validation and connection is one reason that we crave the stimulation and simulation of contact that Facebook offers, and become addicted. But the Facebook Bardo takes you away from the “Life Bardo”, which is far more compelling and beneficial, more capable of leading you to transcendence through deep relationship, love and presence – which cannot be found on Facebook.
10. A loss of time, your most precious resource
The average Facebook user spends 45 minutes a day on the site. Surely, there are more positive ways to use your time. Nicholas Carr makes the case that we gain more from reading books than being on the internet. And book reading has gone down by almost 10% in the last year! Reading books, having an active life in the community, volunteering – these are just some of the ways that the world needs your attention.
Make 2014 the year that you unplugged as much as possible, turned your smartphone on “meditation mode”, and made a real-life social network!
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© 2014 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.
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