Social media apps on a phone. Mindful consumtion of social media
By Categories: All, Mindfulness6.7 min read
Matt Hersh, PhD

Dr. Matt Hersh holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a specialization in child and family clinical psychology. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with a private practice in the Boston area.

These days it seems like we can’t go five minutes before being assaulted by or choosing to engage with some kind of social media. This trend was made benignly but oddly clear to me recently during a lunch with a good friend.

I was “briefing” my friend on the latest happenings in my life and informed him of some bothersome health issues befalling another friend. He quickly replied, “Yeah, I heard. It seems rough.”

This wouldn’t be so odd except for the fact that my lunch friend hadn’t spoken to my other friend in about three months. And the health issues the other friend is struggling with just became “public” last week. Hmm.

Wait…oh, yes…Facebook.

Indeed, my lunch friend had re-acquainted himself with my other friend’s life through a simple FB timeline check. And off we go.

Consuming and Digesting Social Media: Two Very Different Animals

There is actually quite a bit of research these days on Facebook (FB) in particular. What researchers are trying to figure out is whether regular FB users are posting material based on their actual lives. What we see may not be what is actually happening in real time or on deeper levels. For example, when your friend posts amazing pictures of her new baby, you might get gut feelings of both elation and jealousy. Why jealousy? Because maybe you are single and still searching for your ideal partner and long for but can’t imagine having a baby too.

What you might not know, however, is that your friend had a very complicated and traumatic birth, and she and her baby need to remain the hospital for an indefinite period of time. And you might never know that unless you move beyond the FB veneer (unless of course your friend posts that news for everyone to see).

The benign FB example from above about my lunch friend and this other example about your hypothetical friend’s new baby really make me think about how we, as a global culture, are consuming and digesting social media in mass quantities and with incredible rapidity. And we’re consuming so quickly, frequently, and fiercely that we’re not able to look back to see what we’ve actually consumed and what it might be doing to us – good, bad, or somewhere in between.

Don’t get me wrong – social media interfaces like FB can also be wonderful conduits for socializing, social change, social facilitation, and just plain old fun. It can also be used to support friends, join social movements, stay on top of trends, and learn important news. I used to be a social media curmudgeon until I learned more about its various functions and benefits. However, it is often more complicated than meets the eye. And like with food consumption and digestion, we don’t always know what particular foods or eating patterns are doing to us until much later.

Consumption is really about the extent to which and patterns with which we engage with the Facebooks, Twitters, and Linked Ins of the social-digital world. Asking someone about their patterns of posting, updating, checking, searching, and friending on FB is like inquiring about patterns of eating vegetables with each meal, how often we drink coffee, or when and where we eat donuts. These are consumption behaviors that are measureable, to some extent.

But digestion of social media is a different story. We might conceptualize FB digestion, for example, as the process of how the media actually feels when it “goes down,” how it gets absorbed into our psyches, and how it affects us emotionally and socially over the long term.

Importantly, each person will digest “Facebooking” differently based on several factors including but not limited to: personality style, extent and quality of our interpersonal relationships, history with FB as a social media tool, what we are truly seeking during any given social media encounter, awareness of what social media is and is not, and what, how, and how much media we are actually consuming.

In food terms, digestion is the process of not just metabolizing the donuts and coffee you might regularly have for breakfast and ice cream you may often have for dessert each night. It’s also about how you feel after consuming those foods on a daily basis, what your “relationship” is with these kinds of foods throughout your life, if you have a subtle case of lactose intolerance, who is (or isn’t) consuming the food with you, and what the food is doing to your body and mind week after week and year after year.

Now It’s Getting a Little Complicated

You probably thought you were just placing on your timeline some photos of your last trip to the beach with your friends. Or maybe you were just FB friending someone you hadn’t even thought about in 10 years but just discovered is alive and seemingly well with three kids, a gorgeous spouse, and a huge house. (And why is your house smaller than theirs, by the way?).

But just like with food and its subtle or hidden effects on our physical and emotional health, that one act of uploading those beach photos or of friending your long-lost high school acquaintance can actually have interesting and unpredictable ripple effects. And what kind and intensity of effects these social media encounters have likely depend, to some degree, on a combination of those factors mentioned above. These factors – your “personality”, your interpersonal relationship history and quality, interaction with FB as a social media tool, what you intend to get out of any given social media encounter, and what, how, and how much media you are actually consuming – all make a difference in how you might digest accepting a friend request from an old high school crush.

So What I Am Supposed to Do?

The short answer to this question is “I’m not entirely sure.” I am not sure because there are so many variables at play, as mentioned above. And this is still an area of our lives with hundreds of questions still left unanswered. But I can propose a few things of which to be particularly mindful. After all, this is supposed to be an article about “mindful” media consumption.

  • Every time you are about to enter a social media app…pause. Pause…and maybe breathe deeply…so that you can consciously choose how you intend to interact with FB, for example, once you hit that button or click that link.
  • A great question to ask yourself is, “What’s my intention right now”? As simple or even silly as this may seem, pausing to inquire with yourself about your intention can actually help your mind direct its energy and attention to what you would prefer to get out of the encounter rather than what and how FB is set up to feed you.
  • Because FB content can be quite overwhelming, or at least enticing and then subtly overwhelming producing a trance-like state, stop every time you finish reading someone’s post. Ask yourself how this FB food is “going down.” Project into the future for moment to help determine what it might feel like to continue consuming in this way. Then decide for yourself (rather than have FB decide for you) what you will consume next. (Results may vary, but some users may find less FB bloating or less intense hunger afterward.)
  • Set a time limit for social media encounters. So many people I talk to (including myself) often find themselves on FB well beyond the time they intended. It sucks us in like a casino in Vegas. And it does so because there is an unlimited number of forever enticing or intriguing paths down which to travel. So intend to spend perhaps 10 minutes, set your phone alarm, and make a commitment to moving on with your actual day – not someone else’s.

Best of luck mindfully managing your media,

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