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.