Following the 2016 Election, I stopped using social media for two reasons:
In recent months, however, I came to the realization that the modern professional often has to engage in these spaces. These tools, after all, help us network, learn about new ideas, and have a broader conversation with others who share our interests.
So I started running my own social reengagement experiment and began asking: is there a way to use these tools without losing our minds?
Here’s what I’ve learned from going from 0 to 100 mph in the world of social over the last couple months.
There’s no question that these tools offer profound benefits. And yet, I’ve also experienced first-hand the shadow side of these platforms. If I had to distill the problem down to a single line, it would be something like this: social media amplifies many of the most destructive tendencies of the mind.
For me, extended periods of time on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other platforms generate a state that I’ve been calling social media mind.
This isn’t a new mental state. It’s simply an amplification of many of the preexisting mental habits that cause us suffering in everyday life. Here’s how I experience it:
Mind Wandering On Steroids
“Mind wandering” is the term psychologists use for being lost in thoughts about the past and future. This is, of course, an ordinary mental state. In fact, a 2010 Harvard study found that the average person spends around 47 percent of their day mind wandering. But spend an hour or so on social media and this state starts to intensify. In my experience, both the speed and the level of identification with thoughts increases. The mind races. And it’s far more difficult to see thoughts as thoughts. They take on a heightened sense of reality.
Continuous Calculated Comparison
Comparison is another tried-and-true impulse of the mind. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. We’re comparing our level of intelligence, wealth, attractiveness, status, and so on with that of friends, colleagues, and even random strangers walking down the street. In real space, however, these comparisons rest on vague assumptions. I might worry that my co-worker is smarter than me, but how can I really know? I might think my neighbor makes more money than me, but can I really be sure? Social media allows us to engage in this age-old habit with stunning analytical precision. Like counts, comment counts, and follower counts allow us to justify our comparisons with hard data. It’s the virtual equivalent of a world where everyone walked around with a T-Shirt listing their occupation, degrees, social status, and number of friends. Social media, in other words, has turned this destructive mental habit of comparison into a precision science.
Here’s another mental urge that exists in real space. We’re easily bored and often drawn to shiny, new, interesting things. But social media gives us 24/7 access to an all you can eat buffet of fresh information. The science on this is pretty clear. For many of us, this draw toward novelty in digital space is akin to other forms of behavioral addiction (shopping, eating, gambling, etc.), activating the same neural pathways in the brain. That’s the objective science behind this state. But I find the subjective experience of it even more fascinating. The more time I spend in social media space, the more I experience a background urge to stay mentally stimulated. This urge might lead me to keep scrolling through the newsfeed or it might lead me to turn on the TV, listen to a podcast, or get lost in the news. It basically keeps me fixated on consuming more and more information. What it prevents me from doing is: slowing down, being present, or taking a few deep breaths. Social media, in other words, generates a powerful momentum of mental distraction. And that makes it much more difficult to relax and be connected to the present moment.
All of this has left me contemplating: is there some imaginative strategy to have it both ways here – to mitigate the vices of social media while experiencing its benefits?
I’ve been running some of my own experiments of late to explore this question. My initial observation is that, while shifting these mental patterns is hard in real space, it’s even more challenging in social media space.
But I’m not ready to give up, yet. The fact that it’s hard to stay grounded, present, and happy in these spaces could just mean that staying sane in social media space is a lot like running 8 miles with a 30-pound weight vest. So long as we don’t injure ourselves, that extra weight might just make us stronger. It could be that this crazy space is the perfect training ground for building saner habits of mind and helping us thrive in work and life.
What’s the practical strategy for staying sane on social? I don’t have a precise answer but I do know that, for a remedy to work, it must do the following: improve our ability to see these amplified thought patterns from a bigger perspective and avoid getting caught by them.
There’s no way to get rid of mind wandering, comparison, and novelty addiction. But we can see them more clearly. And when that happens, we might just be able to avoid the slippery slope that sends so many people into the traps of FOMO, envy, anxiety, and depression that have been well-documented in the literature on social media.
Here are a few tools I’ve been using to run this experiment:
These are the tools I’ll be using to see if it’s possible to evade the dangers of social media while reaping its rewards. What strategies do you use to stay sane in social media space? Have you found a way to have it all – to connect and engage without losing your mental and emotional wellbeing?