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Is Mindfulness the Cure for Social Media? Take the 5-Minute Challenge and Find Out

It seems everyone is talking about mindfulness lately. Advocates of this ancient practice claim staying present in the moment increases happiness and well-being, and who doesn’t want a piece of that in these troubled times?

I decided to give it a try the other day at the traffic lights when I realized I was completely disconnected from the present. Instead of staring blindly at the lights waiting for them to change while my mind was elsewhere, I focused my attention on how I felt and what was happening around me in that moment. There were two people walking past on the sidewalk, and a man on a foot ladder fixing a sign just a short distance from my car.

It may not seem like much, but I wouldn’t have known these people existed if I hadn’t made the conscious decision to stop and take notice of the present. How many people do we walk past every day, how many conversations do we miss, how much of life passes us by while we’re glued to screens?

A World of Illusion

Social media, by its nature encourages people’s attention to be elsewhere. The designers admit that their goal is to monopolize as much of their users’ time as possible to increase revenue. The downside is that time spent staring at a screen is time away from lived reality. You might argue that all entertainment is like this, but social media has permeated people’s lives in a way which is qualitatively different from anything that came before it.

One of the most insidious things about social media is the way it colonizes users’ brains even when they’re not on it. Snapping constant photos to post online takes people out of the moment because they’re thinking about how they’ll be perceived by others. There is pressure to post the best image possible for maximum attention, and selfies unfortunately get the most engagement. This is why 74 percent of photos posted on Snapchat are selfies. ‘Likes’ feed into the brain’s primitive reward system by sending out a shot of dopamine when a post is noticed, creating a desire to repeat the experience. For many, this becomes so ingrained that nothing feels real unless it has been posted online for the approval of others.

The detrimental effects of social media are apparent in increasing rates of teen depression and suicide. Young people are particularly vulnerable because they don’t know any other way of being. They’ve grown up with the idea that identity is an online performance and that validation comes from likes and shares. When they see pictures of perfect bodies and perfect lives online, they feel like failures.

But the world of social media is one of illusion. The Instagram influencer, shown enjoying a Margarita by the pool in an exotic location probably only stayed there long enough to suck in his/her stomach and get some photos before rushing off to the next location. The harmful effects on young people who find themselves Insta-famous can be seen in the Netflix documentary ‘The American Meme,’ which delves into the lives of teens who have found online fame. In contrast to the glamorous images consumed by millions, life for many ‘stars’ is grueling and lonely.

It’s these fake lives that people spend hours consuming and envying, while their own lives pass them by. In this world of illusion, appearance is everything and instant gratification is demanded. The problem with instant gratification is that you always need more of it, explaining why people can stay on social media for hours at a time. When they finally do break away, they are overwhelmed, restless and dissatisfied, but they can’t explain why. The endless click-bait news cycle just adds fuel to the fire by playing on FOMO as well as genuine fears.

The Power of Presence

Digital detox has become a thing because people have started to recognize the harmful effects of social media. We’re still really at the frontier when it comes to integrating new technologies into our lives, and it’s only to be expected that there will be stumbles along the way. The biggest roadblock to moderating social media use is that corporate interests are directly opposed to the best interests of users. Social media companies have no incentive or desire to encourage healthy use because to stay competitive, they need to people to spend more time, not less, staring at screens.

Hostility towards these companies is growing due to data breaches and a creeping fear of surveillance, seen most recently in widespread paranoia over Facebook’s 10 Year Challenge. Many are predicting that Facebook is on the way out because young people are turning to more enclosed platforms such as Snapchat. There’s also been an increase in communication through emails and texting, which marketers refer to as ‘dark social’ because it can’t be tracked.

It remains to be seen if social media will evolve and become healthier, but for now mindfulness is the perfect tool for those seeking to regain a sense of balance and presence in the moment. This practice is free, simple, effective and anyone can do it, including children. It doesn’t take a lot of time either. Just five minutes a day is enough to bring real benefits.

How Mindfulness Works

To become mindful all you need to do is stay still and focus on breathing in and out. Really feel each breath as it enters and leaves your lungs, then move on to the other sensations in your body. Noticing all the twinges and tingles you’d been oblivious to has a grounding effect. Then work up from the feet to the top of your head and expand from there to the world around you. What can you hear? What can you see? Try to take notice of everything. When you do this somewhere unfamiliar, you’ll be amazed at how many things you didn’t notice. And that’s basically it.

This practice works because it breaks the spell that you can exist outside your body and outside the moment. On the internet it appears that we are all bodiless and free-floating, but by pulling you back into the moment and into yourself, mindfulness exposes this illusion. It’s the antithesis of social media with all its bells and whistles and addictive promises. When you are truly in the moment, you don’t need anything else, and this creates a sense of peace and contentment that stays with you.

Taking the time to really notice and feel your own existence on this spinning rock in the middle of space is also profoundly humbling and helps put things into perspective. It reminds you of the miracle of life and its fleeting nature, which in turn will make you less interested in shallow, meaningless connections.

Another casualty of the digital era has been attention span, and mindfulness can also help with this, but there are so many benefits of this practice that I could easily spend another 1000 words listing them. Rather than take it from me, why not try mindfulness for yourself? You can do it right now, wherever you are, but to reap the benefits, it needs to be a regular practice. If you approach it with the right attitude and commit to doing it every day, this simple 5-minute technique can change your life.

7 Steps to Mindfulness:

1. Find somewhere comfortable where you can sit undisturbed and set a timer for 5 minutes.

2. Focus on breathing in and out, noticing the sensations as the air travels down your windpipe and into your lungs and back out again. Repeat several times.

3. Scan your body from the tips of your toes to the top of your head, noticing all the different sensation in each part of your body. Take special notice of areas where you feel tension.

4. Turn your attention to the outside world by noticing the texture of the seat under you and the ground beneath your feet.

5. Focus on what you can hear, straining for the faintest sounds.

6. Look around and, depending on where you are, notice all the different people, colors, shapes and textures. Try to find things you hadn’t noticed before.

7. Finish by thinking about how it feels to be you, right now in this place and time.

Writer, Reader, Dreamer

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