Social Media Mindfulness Is Not Enough

A group of virtual reality avatars sitting in a circle engaging in meditation
“VR Meditation Guided by Jeremy Nickel” posted to Flickr by Sansar VR. Available at CC-BY 2.0

It used to be only a few voices on the margin: Ian Bogost, Sherry Turkle, Geert Lovink, or Evgeny Morozov, for example, who urged people to think a little more about the time they were spending on social media. But soon the whisper grew and now the movement may be reaching the mainstream. With the rise to prevalence of former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris and his Center for Humane Technology, and with the Facebook Privacy/Cambridge Analytical scandal all over congress and the world news, people are starting to have conversations that were considered almost laughable before.

These conversations are currently taking the form of the following questions: Why is it so hard to quit social media? Are these technologies really improving our livesAre we living in a surveillance society? What are the democratic and social costs of technology that seems to bring us together but might really be breaking us apart? These questions and others like it, are now part of podcasts, news reports, talk shows and unironically, our social media feeds, making up a much needed part of a broader discussion about how we ought to engage with these persuasive, and compulsive technologies.

At the heart of these stories and concerns, these news articles and debates is the idea of social media mindfulness. Specifically, the question is, can we be more mindful of how we use these technologies so as not to use them in ways that are personally or socially disruptive? And if so, HOW can we do it? There are no easy answers here. Like any compulsion, even if we recognize we have an issue, recognition is not always sufficient for breaking the destructive cycle.

There’s a reason why the #deletefacebook campaign didn’t work. Similarly, urging users to be mindful of their social media habits and use social media differently is putting too much faith in users to resist the millions of years of social and evolutionary programming that these technologies have so successfully hacked. Furthermore, it is something of an elitist argument, ignoring the countless individuals for whom social media is their only form of connection.

So while I believe that yes, we must strive to become more mindful of our habits, triggers, and how these technologies seek to take advantage of them, I also believe that regulation and the breakup of powerful information monopolies may be a necessary step in protecting society at this point. I also believe that broad based public health education related to the impacts these technologies have on our communities and young people is long overdue. When people have been psychologically targeted so well, it is facile to expect the regular market process of consumer demand to change the situation on its own. Much like cigarettes in the mid 20th century. These technologies are common place, accepted as normal, and used compulsively. But with the right combinations of nudges, education and regulation, we could imagine a world where this kind of behavior is no longer normal.

As technologies infiltrate more fully into our homes and lives, with Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Smart devices and virtual reality already entering into the mainstream, the time is now to push for transformative change. For this, perhaps mindfulness is simply about being aware of how powerful the compulsion is to engage with these technologies, so that we may begin to ask for help to live healthier lives with technology, rather than living our lives consumed by it.


Social Media Mindfulness Is Not Enough

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