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Our Need to Connect, Anxious When We Don’t!

20160828_140005‘The more we’re connected, the more we seem to be disconnected’ pretty much sums up our growing modern dilemma.

Our globalised social media age is one in which selling ourselves, sharing ourselves, expressing ourselves and defending ourselves are now part and parcel of everyday life for millions of people across the world. In such an age, writes Os Guinness, it’s a case of: ‘I post, therefore I am.’

Not to deny the positive aspects of social media, an ever-increasing volume of mental health studies have, nonetheless, begun to show a more damaging and dangerous side to this culture. Cyber-bullying, sleep deprivation, or distraction from more important matters are undoubtedly some of the more apparent downsides. But there are darker, more tragic dimensions to our engagement with social media. There’s what many call the ‘compare & despair’ syndrome. As people compare their own mundane lives to the endless Instagram, Facebook or Twitter pictures of friends on a perfect vacation, with a perfect partner, or part of a perfect family; or as they devour doctored images of the day-to-day glamorised lives of celebrities; or as they notice how many more hits, likes or shares others are getting than they are, instead of inspiring people, is causing them to despair or be unhappy. The timely wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, echoed by more recent findings in neuroscience, of comparing downwards (with those less well to do than ourselves), instead of upwards (with those better off), continues to be ignored by our destructive consume-and-be-consumed culture.

There is also the FOMO (fear of missing-out) phenomenon. More common with the under-30s, it’s the anxiety caused by not being in-the-know about, or missing out on, experiences (parties, gigs, concerts, or other social events and interactions) that others might be having. Once afflicted, one cannot be at ease for the thought that something important might happen whilst one isn’t connected. The result: angst, addiction and an obsessive need to keep checking one’s phone or social media device.

As with compare and despair, the FOMO affliction has also been around long before social media ever made its mark. But there can be little doubt that social media – with its endless status updates and photos of friends sharing their (seemingly) happier and more exciting lives, and that everybody else is (supposedly) having fun and somehow you’re being left out – has made such paranoia, depression and trauma far more acute and widespread in society.

So as can be seen, and unbeknown to many who are part of a more ‘older’ crowd, the problems with our social media culture isn’t just about selfie-taking narcissists. If we are to retain our sanity; our emotional stability, we need to urgently (re)learn the lost art of JOMO (joy of missing-out): learning to take pleasure in being disconnected for a time, by not feeling one has to be everywhere, or with everyone, at once. So let’s just switch off, be calm and have a cuppa.

A final thought. As a Muslim, and as someone part of that ‘older’ crowd, it’s painful to see how so many people, especially young people, are now in the grip of social media anxiety and addiction. Social media addiction is real, and it’s a far larger problem than most of us care to realise. Its harms are real, too. It degrades life, damages careers and even harms relationships. Most major social network sites, as well as content creators, work hard everyday to make their networks as addictive as possible, using algorithmic filters to tweak their content and target our personal desires, needs and tantrums. In the meantime, our social ability to resist this addiction hasn’t quite evolved.

Islam teaches that Man, being a social creature, has a deep need for connectivity. But more than the need for friendship, intimacy or socialising with others, Islam insists that the greatest need for human hearts – their ultimate yearning – is to be connected to God; and in the absence of that connection there is only an unfulfilled restlessness within us. In the Qur’an, one of God’s Beautiful Names is al-Kafi – ‘The Sufficer’ or ‘He who satisfies all needs’. It follows, then, that if we turn our hearts away from the Sufficer, we shall continue to remain unsatisfied, anxious and unfulfilled. For human hearts can only find true peace, fulfilment and meaning in their Creator: Indeed in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Qur’an, 13:28]

As social media sites are tweaked to get more and more addictive, and as social media companies are in a war for survival where only the most addictive sites will survive, most people will be … well, little more than lab rats in a massive, global experiment. If we don’t learn to cultivate inner restraint or a sense of balance, most will continue to be manipulated by social media sites and content creators to waste far too much time in a way that benefits them, not us – unless we remember that we were created for a higher, more exalted Connectivity and a profounder friendship with the Content Creator of all creation. The choice, therefore, is ours; and where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

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11 thoughts on “Our Need to Connect, Anxious When We Don’t!

  1. Abdurrahman Khan on said:

    Alhamdulillah nice analysis dear sheikh, may Allah swt bless you, do you think people these days are not freeing themselves to think, instead they are enslaved by society? Also is there an aspect here that maybe there are worst things than social media addiction and maybe this is a distraction to more physical haraam acts ?

    • No doubt, given media narratives, powerful advertising campaigns, various forms of political propaganda, and the huge distractions that comes from the entertainment industry; and given how far the reach of each of them can extend, and given also the relentless work of the Devil to make evil seem fair pleasing, it requires a considerable amount of effort to mentally break free. As Muslims who possess Allah’s final Revelation, it is upon us to help the victims of the monoculture to navigate through modernity’s pitfalls and help reconnect them with Adamic norms. If we are to be fit for such a task, it requires for us to have knowledge, humility, compassion and genuine concern for human welfare.

      As for addictions, no doubt there are various things one could be addicted to on the Internet; some more harmful than others. And yes, some activities online are no where near as bad or damaging as some activities done elsewhere. As in other things, we look towards our fiqh teachings to explain the rulings of each addiction. Some addictions will clearly be haram. Others may be makruh. As for weaning oneself off such addictions, then we need to turn to our suluk/tazkiyyah tradition and act by its timeless wisdoms.

      And Allah’s aid is sought.

  2. Assalaamu `alaykum, great post as always, and an invaluable reminder. I wonder, have you ever read the Desiderata? This post brought to mind all the times I read over the framed copy hung on a wall of my childhood home.

    • Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah. I read the poem many years ago (the last time I actually heard it was on an audio cassette!!! with the late Leonard Nimoy – aka Mr. Spock – reciting it). I remember it being a poem infused with wisdom and spiritual instruction. Alas, I haven’t read it as of late.

  3. Reblogged this on The Fahlito Brigante Blog and commented:
    “If we are to retain our sanity; our emotional stability, we need to urgently (re)learn the lost art of JOMO (joy of missing-out): learning to take pleasure in being disconnected for a time, by not feeling one has to be everywhere, or with everyone, at once. So let’s just switch off, be calm and have a cuppa.”

  4. JazakAllahukhair Ustadh for that

    Literally taken the words out of my mouth.

    “A final thought. As a Muslim, and as someone part of that ‘older’ crowd, it’s painful to see how so many people, especially young people, are now in the grip of social media anxiety and addiction.”

    This statement really got me – I mean i’m part of the generation that grew up without phones and social media in the 90’s yet now I find it hard to resist the urge to check something or the other. Then what about the kids who have been growing up in the last decade. The smartphone is so addictive that kids that are barely one or two years old are fascinated by it even at that age.

    Parents have their work cut out for them if they want to control not their own urges but to manage their childrens’ as well

    • Barakallahu fikum. You’re spot on when you say it’s about reigning in our urges; about gaining back some control over the nafs. Our society seems to have lost the art of reigning in one’s desires and urges; its’s all about feeding the ego and instant gratification. If we adults can’t recover the art of self-restraint, how will it be for the younger generation? As the Arabic saying goes, ‘You can’t give what you haven’t got.’

      We ask Allah for courage and well-being.

  5. Assalaamu alaikum Shaikh.

    Thank you for writing this. I often find myself pondering over the whole FOMO and ‘sharing’ phenomenon as a 90’s child.

    Social media feeds (my/our) insecurities sometimes but is also full of wisdom and (virtual) connection/educational opportunities for a stay-at-home mother like me. There are times I see myself drifting in to the vast ocean of virtual junk that is available but I have been making more of a conscious effort to limit my ‘online’ time but to also be more deliberate with what I choose to watch/read/write about.

    I wonder how can one reconcile that with blogging as hobby, or just using the virtual space to share thoughts/tips, and maybe even eventually monetising a blog? Sometimes, I sense that there is no need to ‘blog’ as it is just more ‘noise’ in an already very noisy room!


  6. Wa alaykum as-salam wa rahmatullah.

    Thank you for your candid comment. I think your introspections have possibly answered your own question.

    If it’s blogging about religious matters, I would suggest that is left to those qualified and suited to the task. Im sure you’d agree, we have far too many people giving religious instruction and rulings who are simply not fit for purpose. The damage they do to peoples’ religious and worldly affairs is often incalculable.

    As for other than religious blogging, some of our spiritual masters advise that if there is far more benefit to others than harm; if it doesn’t impact upon one’s ego (in terms of why should people take from me); if it doesn’t take us away from more important obligations and responsibilities; and if it helps deepen our connection to Allah (or at least not weaken it), then it should be ok. Neither should monetising be a problem.

    But all too often, such things do impact upon our iman and spiritual growth. The ‘noise’, as you so deftly put it, is already cacophonous, and souls are already deeply disturbed because of it.

    Perhaps you’ve already considered it (or are already doing so), but have you though about increasing in Islamic knowledge for furthering spiritual growth? There are a number of excellent books that are well worth reading; books that will inspire the heart and fill it with yearning for God.

    Here’s a brief posting I wrote a while back. Perhaps it will help you make a more informed decision:

    And Allah knows best.

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