In the moments when we find complete fulfillment from social media, life is good. But to be real, for most of us, our relationships with these apps aren’t always so perfect. 

On one hand, social media is convenient. It allows us to stay in touch, keep up with the news and trends and offers the chance to be exposed to new art and ideas. At the same time, it sometimes has its ways of leaving us feeling more disconnected.

While I love staying up to date on how my friends and family are doing and celebrating snapshot moments in their lives, I’ll admit that my interaction with social media apps tend to be more automated than that. At the end of a long day, scrolling through Instagram offers an alluring release — even if the content is just white noise. 

In the 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma,” viewers heard first-hand from leaders in Silicon Valley about the dark side of social media and how it’s used to keep us hooked. To quote the film’s Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale University, “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” 

Having studied Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience at the University of Michigan over the past four years, I have become more interested in documentaries like this, specifically how they are connected with the biological and physiological processes of the brain.

Like with any kind of addiction, such as cocaine or gambling, habitual social media use keeps us neurologically hooked by working on something called our dopaminergic pathways. Dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the brain, floods our synapses every time we use social media habitually. Through a process known as long-term potentiation, the neural pathways involved in addiction become stronger with every click, like paths through the woods that harden as more travelers walk across them. The more we activate these pathways by repeatedly performing similar actions or forming dependent behaviors, the stronger they become and the harder it is to quit. In essence, habitual use of a substance or behavior leads to a type of hard wiring that keeps us doing what feels good, even if it affects us in negative ways.

So how do you break the cycle? While you could decide to just use social media less, realistically, that may not work for everyone. If you’ve ever tried to quit something, like cutting out sugar from your diet or quitting nicotine, you may have noticed that even after long periods of meeting your goals, it’s easy to fall back into old habits.

If the “just use less” approach isn’t working for you, next time you find yourself using social media to fulfill your dopamine needs, a secondary strategy you could try is engaging with mindfulness.

What is mindfulness? While definitions vary and the term itself is arguably a culturally appropriated practice from the East, it is becoming popularized in Western spaces as a method to promote well-being and alleviate stress. The University of Michigan Health Service, for example, defines it as “the practice of being present and deliberately aware of our inner thoughts, feelings and surroundings. It originates from Buddhism but is secular in nature. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce stress, improve sleep, and improve cognitive functioning.”

Despite its ancient roots and increasing popularization in the West, mindfulness is actually not proven by science yet. In a systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2020 by Consciousness and Cognition, it was found that, in general, the methodology in these studies remains weak. As a result, the evidence supporting mindfulness as a tool to improve cognitive function “remains fragmented” at best.

Still, if mindfulness works for you, go for it. There has to be some reason the popular meditation app HeadSpace has two million subscribers. 

If you’re willing to take the leap, next time you go to open a social media app, pause. Take a moment to breathe and focus on what’s important to you. Start by bringing awareness to the sensation of your breath. Inhale through your nose, filling your diaphragm with air, and out through your mouth. Repeat. Take a moment to center yourself. What are you getting out of this? What will your impact be in this space?

As you give yourself space to breathe, bring some intentionality and gratitude into your practice. Similar to how you might pray before a meal, say thank you to what you’re about to consume. Take a moment to visualize the energy and the people you’re about to connect with. Notice what feelings come up. You may find that this lends itself to forming deeper connections whether online or in person.

If the accounts you follow are bringing you down, unfollow. To quote Don Miguel Ruiz, “Don’t take anything personally.” If your feed is not bringing you inspiration, fulfillment and joy, search out new content. A few of my favorite content creators to follow recently have been @YogaisDeadPodcast, @MarieBeecham, @NoWhiteSaviors, @rupikaur_ and @morganharpernichols. Your time is valuable; don’t waste it on what doesn’t add value.

By practicing mindfulness with your social media consumption, you allow yourself to move from habitual behavior to a place of mindful reflection that nourishes your relationships, your community and your soul. Life is short, fill your feed with what matters to you.

Lily Cesario can be reached at lcesario@umich.edu.

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