We literally cannot help ourselves. The news is toxic, the conversations about it are often rancorous . . . and yet, let me scroll down one more time to see what else is new.
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.
Related: Retreat or Fight? Both are Right.
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.
On the lenient side, many have said that intoxicants are only to be avoided when they cause heedlessness. One glass of wine is unlikely to cause heedlessness; a whole bottle quite likely would. So the former would not violate the precept, while the latter would.
But if Internet use has been shown to function neurologically like other intoxicants, what’s the difference between it and beer and marijuana? Obviously, moderate use of all these substances doesn’t cause heedlessness. Equally obviously, excessive use does. The precept isn’t about vodka as opposed to gin; it’s about how intoxicants lead to un-mindfulness. And anyone who’s lost an hour (or two) on Facebook can tell you about that.
Including Internet use within the fifth precept can lead to a number of benefits. First, of course, you might not spend as much time and energy falling into rabbit holes of distraction or pits of rage and despair. That’s the main benefit: less of the insanity.
But there are other benefits too. Taking on the fifth precept in this way can lead to helpful discernment practice. We all need to be informed about the terrifying political moment we are living in. And it’s good to be connected to our friends and family. But can you notice when you’ve tipped over from those “wholesome” activities to the “unwholesome” activity of Internet addiction?
I’ve noticed that with me it’s quite subtle. Often there’s just a small movement of heart that indicates that, oops, now I’m just wasting time. Or that I’m looking for something to amuse myself. It’s ironic, really: social media both plugs us into bad news and offers candy-like distractions from it. It creates the problem and then pretends to solve it—all because we’d rather have some interesting formations [any physical or mental concepts] to amuse ourselves. I’ve found it really interesting to observe these subtle movements of mind.
Finally, including Internet use in the fifth precept can be a useful reminder that this is not your special problem. It’s not your weakness, alone among all us better Buddhists. In fact, there’s no “you” getting brain-addled, Internet-addicted, or bored in the first place. It’s causes and conditions, not self. Take a human brain and expose it to the right bells and lights and it will get entranced. That’s how this organism works.
And that’s why the fifth precept is offered as a universal guide. Regardless of the particular forms, human brains can get intoxicated, careless, and worse. In the sixth century BCE, intoxicants were mostly fermented drinks. Today, they’re on your phone and laptop. Much has changed, but much has stayed the same.
[This story was first published in 2017]
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