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A Carnival in Your Palm: Stress and Isolation in the Age of Social Media

It’s a beautiful, early June afternoon on what’s known as Bushwick Inlet Park, a
meadow with soccer fields and a set of benches overlooking the East River. As do all
north Brooklyn waterfronts, the park provides an unobstructed of Manhattan’s
dramatic skyline, and this afternoon offers a particularly enjoyable scene. In addition
to near perfect weather, water planes are making swooping arcs over the river and
landing like geese at the water plane terminal across from us, on the Manhattan side.
Just behind us, groups of young children chase soccer balls and try to score goals,
oblivious to the teacher who blows a whistle for their attention. It’s all so complete
and perfect, yet few people are actually taking in the scene. Despite the view, the
sounds, and the rich sensations, my present neighbors are glued to the tiny screens
on their smartphones, soaking in the messages, news items, posts and status alerts,
hooked into a netherworld of .jpg images and headlines demanding attention. Lost in
cyberspace: it’s the contemporary human experience.

Cheerleaders of the Internet age, from business magazines to the web’s dedicated
tech blogs and portals, such as Gizmodo, Mashable, ZDNet, TechCrunch and so on,
are thrilled with the progress that’s been made: The International Association of
Business Communicators (IABC) rejoices that social media is “the communication
medium that brings us all together, and it’s easily accessible.” Forbes, while
acknowledging social media can be a distraction, also says it’s “a way to open up
opportunities that would never have existed. It will become clearer that social media
is an essential part of doing business today.” tells us that social media
“allows us to better connect with people who share our interests and enrich our lives.”
It’s reassuring to know our apps and news streams are connecting us all for the
better, and that no one needs to feel out of the loop, as most of our friends are online
as well, busily posting selfies of themselves from another area of the city. Why bother
to jump on the bike to ride across town to meet a friend when their image is presently
scrolling past on Facebook?

Questioning the merits of interactive media can seem like looking a gift horse in the
mouth; web based start-ups are powering much of our economy, virtually paving the
streets of San Francisco with gold. A parade of new apps are released every day,
offering new ways to upload the words and images of our lives to what’s called the
cloud, which is essentially a vast, interconnected network of server farms. It’s the
challenge of the 21st century to feel good about anything but than our gadgets and
apps. In a landscape pounded by the effects of global warming, threatening economic
forecasts, little job security and diminishing social programs, it’s understandable if we
look to our devices for a little distraction, if not outright salvation.

While there’s an abundance of clinical research alerting us to what could
described as our Internet addiction—hang on, I’ll provide plenty of references as we
move on— few of us have read the warning signs, though they’re everywhere as we
head towards the cliffs. Juggling all of life’s message streams, phone texts, social
media news feeds, incoming e-mails and phone messages—how old school!—we’re
rapidly losing key skills that allow for long term peace of mind.

Through dogged effort, we’re neurally wiring our brains to seek constant digital
stimulation, and in turn we’re finding it increasingly difficult to pause, relax and sit
still. We spend less time developing skillful forms of self-soothing, such as drawing,
strumming a guitar, soaking in a warm bath, gardening, taking directionless strolls;
our attention spans have deteriorated under the ongoing barrage of stimulus. Perhaps
the greatest drawback, though, is that our increased dependence on technology has
resulted in a steady decline of interpersonal empathy, while narcissistic self involvement
only continues to flourish.

Continual use of communication devices which are stripped of synchronous, inperson
interactions, undermines our core interpersonal skills. For every hour we spent
on a laptop or cellphone, one-on-one interactions with others drops by a half hour.
Without hearing a sender’s tone of voice, or seeing their facial expressions and body 
language—not to mention the context in which a message was written—we miss much
of what’s being communicated; and our own messages are prone to misinterpretation.
The posterior areas of the brain responsible for reading facial expressions (fusiform
gyrus) are winding up less wired to the frontal regions.

Empathy is the essential ability to understand and, to some degree, feel another
person’s emotional experience. While the left hemisphere of our gray matter takes in
other people’s words and ideas, the right hemisphere is working behind the scenes,
reading other people’s underlying mental and physical states via their facial
expressions, tone of voice, gestures and movements.3 The process of emotionally
connecting with another person demands several skills: sustained attunement, which
means visually locking with another person for a period of time to soak in their
presence; sympathy, which is an intellectual understanding of a situation as it relates
to another; and empathy, the ability to somatically experience the emotions and pain
of another. We commit and care for each other as a direct result of attunement,
sympathy and empathy.

So humans have a unique, powerful prefrontal process: sustained attention,
in conjunction with language comprehension (sympathy) and the experience of
emotional mirroring (empathy), allows us to bond securely. When we feel safely
attached to others, we’re capable of providing emotion regulation to each other. For
when our facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures reflect back another person’s
emotional states, we help them find an appropriate response to life’s challenges, and
they do the same for us. Our excitement helps another sustain their joy; our sadness,
mixed with confidence, allows a friend to process disappointment without too much
despair. Unfortunately, these capabilities require us to put down our phones and look
away from our laptops for a while.

Is the above needlessly alarmist? Well, on average, we consume 12 hours of media
each and every day (in 1960 the figure was less than 5 hours). Seventy-nine percent
of the information consumed is now directly flowing through two-way Internet
communication channels, such as instant messaging, email and social media. During
these hours, the core skills that allow us to regulate moods and impulses—the restful,
meditative pause, self-soothing, and interpersonal empathy—are being sapped away
by stimulus-providing addictions. We’re entranced because the lights, message scrolls
and images trigger our innate survival programming to respond to threat and
opportunity. And there’s a reason for this: It’s called evolution.

Stimulation triggers the midbrain’s reward systems, especially regions with
wonderful names such as nucleus accumbens, amygdala, superior colluculi to release
dopamine and other neurotransmitters and hormones, which excite us in the short
term and leaves us addicted over time (dopamine is the same neurotransmitter that
cocaine blasts us with). The dopamine pathways energize and coordinate the activities
of our higher brain regions, overriding plans and pre-established agendas.

And so we find ourselves checking our phone’s text messages 80 times a day; to the
midbrain, it’s all wonderful stimuli that act as excitatory triggers, leading again and
again to more dopamine, each blast making us feel a little safer in the word. Alas, the
brain becomes de-sensitized to the reward cycle, so we may even find ourselves
caught in a spiral, driven more and more to seek stimuli, even though the dopamine
shot is progressively less rewarding once obtained. Our reward system was not meant
to be triggered constantly, and eventually, when there’s no sustained breaks, it leads
to excessive craving for more powerful stimulation. Eventually we wind up in a state
of dopamine withdrawal, where we may find ourselves irritable, unmotivated,
unappreciative of the real world around us, unable to know when to put down the
phone. The more attention we give the iPhone or the target of our craving, the greater
our appetites.

At first, new communication apps and shiny devices may seem enthralling. As the
Buddha noted 2,500 years ago, the run-of-the-mill mind is restless and easy to 
unsettle once some calm has been found—and our gadgets provide plenty of bells
and whistles to reactivate us. Enthralled by moving text and scrolling images, the
smartphone screen creates a little carnival on our palm, a place we can go to escape
any tension, conflict or boredom in the world for a little shot of pleasure. As the
Internet shopaholic craves the feeling of clicking “buy,” unaware the act sends them
into debt; giving into the urge to check one’s texts, Facebook, Instagram, dating apps
has rewarded us with chronic attention deficit disorder.

It’s important to note that the brain is neuroplastic; it essentially rewrites itself,
embedding neural pathways which make daily activities feel routine. So our
smartphones and laptops have a significant impact on thought and behavioral
processes. For better or worse, we have trained our brains to react quickly to new
stimuli. Google (and perhaps news streams) have taught us to filter through pages
and pages of search results, quickly uncovering the data that suits our needs. We’ve
found a way to acclimatize ourselves to the bombardment of messages and news we

Multitasking stimulates us into a continual thirst for more than what’s actually
available right here and now—the very definition of what the Buddha called craving
(tanha in Pali). Habituated to our regular dopamine blasts, it’s easy to feel restless
and uninspired by skylines, nature’s ephemeral moments of beauty and, of course, the
emotional needs of other people. Our growing need for distractions steadily drains our
creativity while interrupting those essential times we arrive together in the world to
take each other in.

Our confidence in multitasking results in such pearls of wisdom as “Hey, don’t worry,
I can hear what you’re saying while I check my messages.” Unfortunately,
multitasking is a fiction. Eyal Ophir’s team of neurobiologists at Stanford inform us, in
a research paper called Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers, about what’s really
happening behind the scenes of a mind jumping from one task to another:

● The brain struggles in trying to take in more than one object of attention; people
who focus on two information streams are far less efficient in performing tasks
accurately than those who focus on one thing at a time; multitaskers often lose
information while switching from one source of information to another.
● Multitasking activates the release of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol,
leading to a loss of short-term memory processing. What we read and hear
while multitasking is much less likely to be stored for easy retrieval in the future
than what we encounter with a mind focused on one information flow.
● It’s a hard habit to kick; the Stanford researchers found that the practice is
growing rapidly and creates an appetite for a constant stream of information.
Basking in the delusion of productivity, we’re actually becoming addicted to
distraction, finding it harder to stay present.

The result of multitasking and constant visual stimulation is that one of the most
uncomfortable experiences in contemporary life seems to those times when we feel
disconnected, untethered to a screen, waiting; being without a signal—Wi-Fi or
cellular—is something to avoid and dread. We’ve come to expect access to the digital
realm as if it’s as fundamental as oxygen and water.

The flow of information doesn’t just connect us with work, friends, blogs, social
media pages and Internet dating messages, the bombardment eventually results in an
emotional leveling in the viewer; there’s simply too much to take in and process. Each
item is reduced to a state of “like” or “dislike” equivalency. The same Facebook stream
that announces a friend’s engagement or shows a clip of a kitten playing with a dog
also brings us images of war-torn regions, mass shootings ,and the latest legislative.
To those of us hooked on being-in-the-loop, tuned in and tied up, our emotional
reactions wind up flattened. There’s no space or room to empathize or even deeply
acknowledge an atrocity when immediately afterward our attention is grabbed by
another event.

And who has time to slow down to access a deeper, emotional response
anyway? The barrage of messaging has fine-tuned life towards ever greater efficiency; 
empty time is a sign of sheer, irresponsible self-indulgence. Behavior that a generation
earlier was symptomatic of mania—a constant flow of shifting desires, overly
ambitious plans, unlikely leaps from one conversational topic to another, inadequate
attention spans, the compulsive need to be constantly on the move—is now the
hallmark of a creative, “out-of-the-box” thinking. The digital stream fetishizes
restlessness, turning disorder into ideals.

Thus, many of us now have a fear of hitting the pause button of life, an open
period spent lingering or on standby, falling into the chasm between one task and
another. The 21st-century marketing consultant or social media guru is constantly
productive, still checking in while on the move. Observe people waiting for a delayed
subway today: the outrage at inconvenience is palpable, especially if the there’s no
Wi-Fi signal. What could be worse than just standing there, doing nothing, existing?
When we fear boredom and idleness, we’re abandoning ourselves, our basic condition
of existence.

And so we fill up delays and down times with anything that makes us feel
engaged and productive, updating our status, buoyed by reposts of Facebook “selfies.”
Or finally, as a matter of last recourse, we may find ourselves catching up with the
news of the world. But even that is better than, well, simple aliveness, the experience
of breathing, standing, waiting, being.

And what’s really terrifying is that at this very minute there’s probably a
hundred thousand start-ups producing a million smart phone apps for next year’s Wi-
Fi watches that will schedule us down to the last minute and cram each of those
seconds to the point of no return. Soon, every moment of life will be monitored,
clocking everything we’ve accomplished and telling us how much more we need to do. 
The gadgets and gizmo advertisements instruct us to be more efficient: it’s time
to really get down to business, now’s the time to start churning out more content or
fine tuning our personal brand. If love, security and acceptance is to be found
anywhere, the underlying message goes, it’s from doing more.

Somehow, in the rush of it all, few of us seem to notice that our Internet sites
have the shelf-life of yogurt, and that no matter how much we clear off our desk, it’s
covered again the next day. People come hear me speak about meditation and what
the Buddha taught, but what they really want to hear is how to stay on the treadmill
of busyness without experiencing debilitating anxiety, which is akin to postponing
swimming lessons until one is actually drowning. Another way of putting it: we can’t
experience freedom if we’re chained to anything, even if it’s as bright and shiny as a
smart phone. If we’re not ready to put down our devices for even a few minutes
between one meeting and the next, allowing our brains to sit on idle for respite, we’re
running our engines into the ground (but we can’t, of course, trade them in every
three years). In a land where keeping busy is considered beneficial, and boredom—
otherwise known as feeling the basic condition of human existence—is a considered a
failure and worthy of pharmaceutical treatment, productivity is no longer the means to
an end, but the point of life in itself. The entire goal is: Stay Busy and You Won’t Have
to Feel a Thing. 

And so one of the most radical, countercultural things we can do is actually just
sit somewhere and relax without feeling we’re missing out or being lazy. Rather than
avoiding stillness with one more tweet, we need to relearn how to can settle into the
vastness of unscheduled time; rather than avoiding silence via endless chatter, we can
ease into its expanse. In the space of a minute, we can experience a state of rest and
ease that a lifetime of effort cannot produce. Effort and productivity are stressful and
agitative, not the end of stress and agitation. Taking a break can feel disconcerting,
even odd and self-indulgent, creating space in life without immediately filling it. But in
that space there’s something far more precious and rare than anything we’ll ever find
on a screen—and it doesn’t come with a monthly surcharge. 

Of course, there is a fine line between necessary use of modern technology and
needless dependence and addiction. Its analogous to consuming food: we all need to
eat, but many of us, let’s be honest and say Americans in particular, tend to consume
far more than we need, and real problems ensue. The Buddha covered this in his
teachings on the requisites, noting that we all need a certain amount of food, clothing,
shelter and medicine to survive. The key is to separate what’s essential for health
from what creates addiction and stress; in Buddhist lingo, the proper amount is known
as “the middle way,” neither deprivation nor indulgence (though today, most of us
skew toward the latter). Establishing balance is never easy. It requires rigorous self-honesty and investigation, backtracking, spending time away from our wellsprings of
immediate gratification. When we let go of activities that activate dopamine, we’ll find
ourselves restless and even bored, but these experiences are wonderful opportunities
to develop new skills at self-soothing. (Those of us who spend weeks each year on
silent retreats, away from our cellphones and laptops, will attest to the initial agitation
that can result in the first few days.) And yet, as we return to staying present with
life, opening to the wonders of full, embodied sensations, not to mention the deeper
satisfactions of face-to-face interactions, what’s lost is far outweighed by what’s
gained—real life. 


  1. Thank you for this insightful and provocative piece.


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