Photo by Franck Michel | https://tricy.cl/2ldEsU9
A meditation teacher and political columnist makes a case for considering the Internet an intoxicant that should be used in moderation.By Dr. Jay Michaelson
Certainly, the Trump administration has brought with it new opportunities to worry, obsess, fear, get angry, get motivated, detach, indulge—and with any luck, to notice these various mind states as they come and go. The Internet, too, is quite new, at least in terms of human evolution.
But some of our online conundrum is, in fact, quite old. Given the research on Internet addiction, I want to suggest that it’s time to expand the fifth precept, which proscribes the consumption of intoxicants, to include the online world. The Internet is an intoxicant and should be treated as such.
First, social media is designed to maximize addictive behavior. Push notifications, “likes,” and other positive feedback loops have been shown to trigger the brain’s dopamine system. With each “like” you get, your brain gets the same little jolt that it gets from drugs, sex, gambling, and other potentially addictive stimuli.
Thanks to evolution, we are wired to watch vigilantly for threats and reward, and to enjoy that reward when it comes. Thanks to social media, that happens every time your phone beeps.
What is that? Anticipation. Did I get a new like? Hope for validation. I did!Dopamine reward. This cycle activates the same parts of the brain as heroin and cocaine. Indeed, a 2011 study showed that heavy Internet users suffered physical and mental withdrawal symptoms after unplugging for a day.
And then there’s the converse: the feelings of envy or loneliness that can arise from viewing other people’s life updates. Researchers have dubbed this “Facebook depression.” Another study showed that the reward centers in young people’s brains were activated more by the “likes” a photo gets than by the content of the photo itself. We are, after all, social animals.
Again, none of this is an accident. As technology folks readily admit, they’ve designed products to exploit your brain chemistry as effectively and efficiently as possible. There’s no hidden agenda here: it’s right out in the open. Each time you scroll down, you see another ad. Each ad you see, the advertiser pays a few cents. Now multiply that by a billion.
Of course, this isn’t really new either. After all, both I and Tricycle have successfully enticed you to read this piece. We did it the way journalists have for centuries, with a (hopefully) interesting topic and a (hopefully) attention-grabbing headline. And if we didn’t have donors, you probably wouldn’t be reading these words.
But some of this really is new. Never before has an industry as large as social media had as many tools to maximize its impact on the human mind. And those tools are only going to get better (or worse): live video, augmented reality, virtual reality, sharper targeting for content and ads, wearable devices, new platforms, and, of course, innovations we can’t yet imagine. In a decade, we’re going to look back at 2017 as quaint.
That combination of improved means for unimproved ends is why it’s worth looking at older, yet often timeless, attempts to grapple with the addictive potentialities of mind. The fifth precept, present in multiple Buddhist traditions, is one of those.
The precept, in its classical forms, is refraining from liquors and other intoxicants. In Pali, sura-meraya-majja-pamadatthana literally means “abstaining from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.” There are many opinions as to the scope of the precept. On the strict side, almost everyone agrees that not just fermented drink but other intoxicants are also to be avoided…