The benefits of meditation are well known. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and provide an escape from daily life. It seems like a perfect activity for those who want to unwind and relax.
However, meditation is not always as relaxing as it seems for various reasons, one of which is that our brains are conditioned nowadays to always have some form of entertainment or distraction.
Social media is one space where many folks are exposed to the negative effects of constant distractions and mindless scrolling. While social media can be a great space for cultivating community, the dangers of social media to a meditator's (and really anyone's) mental health are threefold.
1. Mindless Scrolling
We've all been there, just hoping on Instagram to check on what your best friend was up to last weekend only to look up at the clock a half hour later wondering what you've even been looking at this whole time. It's as if time was left behind and you've forgotten about everything else except for the little boxes sliding up your screen.
One important skill in meditation is cultivating awareness. This can be awareness of the breath, awareness of your body, or even awareness of the world around you. Being able to pay gentle attention to sensations or even the wandering of your mind is a touchstone of many forms of meditation. From there, meditators learn to direct the attention towards and away from different points of focus, but always with a clear choice as to where the attention is directed.
One of the dangers of social media for meditators is that social media, like advertisements, hijack our choice-making ability. Social media does this by using tactics that appeal to our social conditioning or nervous system's wiring. We are hardwired to pay attention to what others are doing to protect ourselves and to cultivate better connections with our "tribes".
Social media utilizes techniques that keep us absorbing content and the rhythm and nature of the content slowly lulls us into a trance-like state. An argument could be made and is being made more frequently that social media use induces hypnosis or trance-like states.
Social Media and Hypnosis
The American Psychological Association defines hypnosis as a “state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion."
Have you ever watched a show or movie where someone is hypnotized and then does something embarrassing or out of character? This happens because the person is in a heightened state of suggestibility and is not thinking critically. The same thing can happen when you are scrolling through social media. You are in a trance-like state, focused on the screen and not aware of what is happening around you and the content is designed to be highly suggestible.
In a study published by the National Library of Medicine, researchers explain "Hypnosis and heavy smartphone use are both characterized by absorbed states in which one loses track of time and responds automatically to stimuli." In an experiment the researchers hypnotized 641 student-aged participants and after the hypnosis session had participants complete the Smartphone Addiction Scale. They found "there was a positive correlation between hypnotisability and smartphone addiction".
The trance-like state of scrolling and the increased suggestibility that comes with it means that you are more likely to believe what you see on social media and to act on it. This can be dangerous for meditators who are trying to develop a practice of mindfulness and present moment awareness as well as those working towards mindful action. When you are mindlessly scrolling through social media, you are not present and you are not aware of your thoughts and emotions.
Another one of the dangers of social media for meditators is the addictive nature of social media.
A key component of meditation is cultivating control over our interaction with stimulating spaces in our lives. The act of meditating is comprised of conscious choices from moment to moment about how we are directing our energy and attention.
Addiction and addictive behaviors remove the ability to make conscious choices habits as reactivity and dopamine drive neural pathways' direct actions. Practicing choice-making is a great way to break the cycle of addiction, but how many times have you found yourself scrolling through Facebook without even making the conscious choice to reach for your phone?
We've likely all experienced the magnetic pull that social media creates towards our devices. I recently had a fellow healthcare provider share that their next big investment would be a timed lock box to keep their phone away from their hands during certain times of the day. Knowing something is causing negative effects on your physical or mental health but feeling such a lack of control around a device that you want to lock it away is a clear sign of a growing addiction.
According to Recovered.org, a non-profit that helps connect people with rehabilitation resources explains that "like other types of behavioral addictions (gambling, porn, sex) constant or excessive use of social media can have a harmful influence on the way your brain process pleasure and reward. Similar to addictive drugs, social media content and likes can trigger the release of the pleasure chemical dopamine, which may explain why some people report feeling addicted to these platforms". Dopamine reacts with neurotransmitters in our brains and cause "addiction pathways" that make it challenging to resist addictive behaviors, keep us constantly on the search for the next pleasurable distraction and remove or limit the control over choice in the moment.
3. Lack of Awareness of Reality
The last of the dangers of social media for meditators is that social media can act as a rabbit hole for certain types of thinking. Social media algorithms feed users more and more of what they interact positively with. This can create a feedback loop of only being exposed to information that supports their current beliefs. This can lead to a lack of awareness of different viewpoints and a reinforcement of their own echo chamber. Over time, this can lead to a distorted view of reality.
Meditation is rooted in compassionate awareness of reality and social media can skew our perception of ourselves and the world around us. Comparison is the enemy of compassion and social media is causing many people today to doubt their self-worth or the innate self-worth of others. Disordered eating and plastic surgery become desperate tools for individuals whose view of the world and reality has been skewed by filters and photoshopping on social media. The use of filters that alter reality cause people to second guess their natural beauty and worth and results in severe blows to self-esteem and self-image.
Meditators need to see things clearly as they are and consistent exposure to an edited or curated reality can cause our brains to misinterpret what is going on around us.
How to have a healthy relationship with social media as a mediator
After five years of consistent mediation practice I've given up social media to help me lean deeper into my practice and be less reactive off the cushion, but giving up social media entirely isn't the only option.
Consider using apps like Forest to make a game out of staying off your phone. Consider an accountability buddy to share screen time goals with. Maybe even get a box to lock your phone in during certain times of the day.
If you are a meditator, be mindful of how much time you spend on social media and what you are exposing yourself to. Be intentional about what you are consuming and be aware of the effect social media has on your mind and body. If you're aware and curious about your relationship with social media, you'll be able to find a solution that doesn't hinder your meditation practice.
If you're currently leaning into meditation and struggling to find the right style of meditation for you as you step away from social media and other forms of distraction, or if you are a long-time meditator looking to try out new approaches snag my free five guided meditations here to explore five different types of meditation. These guided meditations will help you approach your practice with more confidence and positivity and will help you to approach focus challenges like social media, the news, and other draws on your attention with equanimity.