These days, most of our communications and exchanges of information take place over social media, to the extent that it now feels like we cannot live without it. This is a very powerful medium with countless benefits, creating a virtual world beyond physical boundaries—almost like magic. These days, we can communicate and share text, images, and videos in real time, no matter where we are. There are many platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and so on, that we use in everyday life to share information and connect with each other without leaving our chair. Indeed, what we share can be distributed to an unlimited number of people at the same time.
The dark side of social media that must be recognized, however, is the rising anxiety and depression among people because of the accompanying onslaught of negative news, unrealistic expectations about how we should look, or what standing in society we should attain in order to be accepted. Also, too much screen time prevents us from connecting to the natural world and to our physical bodies, which are important for the physical and mental well-being of all people, young and old.
Perhaps one of the most damaging impacts of social media is that it serves as the virtual ground where all sorts of wrong and misleading information can be shared without any fact-checking. We are already seeing the impact of this manifest in society, resulting in widespread conspiracy theories and violent political divisions.
So the impact of social media has been enormous, in both positive and negative ways; we could go on with a litany of its ramifications. One concrete example is the creation of virtual sanghas and meditation retreats during the three years of the COVID-19 lockdowns. During the pandemic, many people could not meet, but lots of the good activity was absorbed by virtual connections. I personally connected with some of my Dharma brothers, with whom I hadn’t spoken in the last 20 years. Now they share their lives in pictures and writing as if I were with them back in Tibet. Once, I even requested a lama to give me a reading transmission of a sacred text all the way from Tibet while I was living in the West, which made me think that the smartphone in front of me also had a sacred aspect to it.
Social media is not going away any time soon, but it will become more and more integrated into our lives as time goes by. As Buddhists, we need mindful guidelines on how to use these tools. There are two practices that we can apply so that we can have the benefits and reduce the negative effects: they are discipline and discernment.
First, social media is addictive. It can take up a disproportionate amount of our time, and often the information we receive is trivial and useless, like gossip or plain nonsense just designed to kill time. So we have to be aware of how much time we spend, restrict our usage, and combat the urge to return to our screen.
The second practice is knowing that there will be lots of false information in circulation; we must bear that in mind. Each time we open our screen, we must remember to use our discernment to analyze the content to see if it’s likely to be true or false. Some of the false information comes either from pure ignorance or directed malice, which can have negative impacts on a large societal scale. We should not support this.
Because in ancient times, social media was not an issue, the Buddha or early Buddhist masters did not specifically address such a problem. Yet, every epoch has had its own specific problems to deal with. Our times are no different, and this will only accelerate since times are changing faster and faster due to emerging technologies. We can use the Buddhist teachings and practices to deal with these new problems and develop skillful means to use these challenges to our advantage.
This widespread use of social media will bring with it chaos and positive changes at the same time. In the 15th century, when the printing press was invented and transformed society, its impact was similar in its scale to the rise of the internet. It gave a large swath of people access to knowledge that was formerly restricted to the few. It also marked the end of the monopoly of the Catholic Church over Christianity, allowing new denominations of Christianity to emerge, such as the Protestant Church.
So let me end on a positive note. There is a particular positive aspect to social media, which was probably not in the minds of the people who developed it. Originally, this technology was developed for military, commercial, and other uses. Nobody ever envisioned it becoming what it is today. Social media now gives a voice to people who never had the possibility of being heard, and it carries the potential to make the world more just and egalitarian. Social media is empowering so many people that its reach is unprecedented. It can bring about a revolution of consciousness that could take us to a world which is better than ever before for everyone.