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Buddhism and Social Media

Photo by Leo Patrizi / Getty Images

Living Buddhism sat down with representatives of the SGI-USA high school division to discuss some of the challenges they face developing their self-worth in the age of social media. In the following discussion, Mili Fukada, of New York, Nala Thomas, of Los Angeles, and Austin Utsumi, of Dallas, share their thoughts on how social media impacts them and their peers, and how their Buddhist practice helps them gain perspective and acknowledge their self-worth.

Living Buddhism: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. For your generation, especially, social media plays a big part in your lives. Can you share one thing that you like and dislike about social media?

Mili Fukada: I like seeing how social media creates a community of people similar to you. What I don’t like are the social media apps that calculate my relationship with people, where you get scores and ratings based on your interactions on that platform. How much someone likes you has become an algorithm.

Nala Thomas: I like using it to catch up with friends. It’s also easy to figure out what kind of person someone is by looking at what they post. But I’ve experienced a lot of stress when friends have put pressure on me to like their Instagram stories. It’s as if they are mad at me, then after I like their story, everything is back to normal. So, I feel social media can cause unnecessary stress and conflict.

Austin Utsumi: It’s easy to connect with friends, especially when they don’t live nearby. I have a group chat with my close friends where we share updates. Overall, it’s really helpful to communicate. At the same time, a lot of negativity and misinformation is shared on social media, which can harm people. I agree with efforts made to limit the negativity, especially hate and misinformation.

Mili: You get left behind if you isolate yourself from it. When I did a social media cleanse for just a week, everyone at school asked why I was mad at them. And I just felt, I can see you in person and have a conversation, but no, you’re mad at me because I didn’t snap you back.

A growing body of research shows that the more time a person spends on social media, the more likely they are to experience mental health struggles. How has social media impacted your peers?

Mili: One girl I used to be friends with wanted to be a social media influencer and was posting her vlogs (short videos). But, you know, people started making fun of her just because she wasn’t getting many views or likes. All she wanted to do was express herself, but people didn’t give her a chance. Expressing yourself is so difficult. And once you post something, it never goes away, which causes a lot of stress. So, you can’t make a mistake with your post because it will follow you forever. My friend experienced serious mental health struggles and had to take a year off school to go to a rehab center. I have other friends who take anxiety medication and see a therapist due to depression and anxiety.

Austin: I see a lot of people at school affected by social media. It just makes everyone’s emotions fluctuate constantly. Some days, kids are really happy, but the next day or even hour, the same kids are depressed. The ups and downs can really wear you down.

Nala: What affects my environment most is TikTok. It’s so absorbing, and a lot of my friends are addicted to it. For example, I’ll hear some kids talk about how much effort it took for them to reduce their TikTok viewing from 8 to 6 hours a day. Even during sleepovers and hangouts, everyone is looking at social media and barely talking to one another. Social media addiction makes people zombified.

Part of me feels like, Why are we all getting together to hang out if we’re not going to talk anyway? I feel bad because they fall into the trap of exactly what social media was created to do.

How do you encourage friends who struggle to value their lives?

Austin: I feel like having a positive mindset is everything to get you through the harsh ups and downs. Personally, I chant to be thankful for my life and encourage my friends to have that appreciation for who they are in this moment.

Nala: People at school constantly criticize themselves. I try to do as much shakubuku as possible at school. When a friend shares with me how much they hate themselves, I chant to have the wisdom to say the right thing to them. I always go back home and chant for them. And when I do that, I see their mood improve the next day. At the beginning of this year, I made a goal to shakubuku everyone at my school, both classmates and teachers. I at least want to plant seeds by teaching them how to say Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I love how Ikeda Sensei encourages us to create peace right where we are.

Mili: It’s really hard, but the most important thing is having a strong sense of self and fighting your own insecurities. At the end of the day, it’s a battle with yourself. And Buddhism is so important because it helps you make that strong determination to not be defeated.

Also, the emphasis of unattainable beauty standards is destructive. You have to always think about looking a certain way that people will approve of. I used to be a professional dancer and constantly watched videos on what dancers should eat or how to mold my body, really concerned with how society wants me to be. This led me down a very negative path. Through chanting, I realized that I wasn’t valuing my life. I also realized I didn’t really want to do ballet. I began thinking, What is my mission? I thought about what I want in my own life instead of what I thought I needed to do to please others, and I’m still working on it.

What role does Buddhism play in providing a solution to these issues?

Nala: Wisdom is important to know when something is unhealthy and when to stop. I try to engage in faith, practice and study each day, which has helped me understand clearly what is good for my life and what is negative.

Mili: I feel it’s actually selfish to not value your life, because your friends and family cherish you so much, even if they don’t always show it. Buddhism teaches how we’re all connected. Chanting builds a core of self-worth, putting me in rhythm with the universe. I see a huge difference in the days when I chant and when I don’t.

Austin: At school, people ask me why I’m so happy and in a good mood. Being happy myself and showing I care about myself and my classmates impacts them. Actually, all of my friends are positive, which is a benefit from my practice. I try to greet everyone and talk to others I haven’t met so no one feels like they’re alone.

What are some ways to use social media in a healthy way?

Nala: I think my parents are a great example. They watch funny TikTok videos before bed and use it to enjoy their time and connect to one another. Also, my mom follows all the positive news feeds on social media.

Austin: Yeah, that’s awesome. For me, it’s important to regulate my time on social media and stick to it. Also, I try to keep myself busy with positive activities and not spend too much time on my phone.

Mili: I have been using it less frequently.

I used to be so addicted. My screen time was through the roof. But I’ve been so encouraged by SGI’s social media presence, especially Buddhability. We can use social media to do kosen-rufu!

From the June 2023 Living Buddhism

Defining Self-Worth in the Age of Social Media

Sending Forth a Refreshing Breeze of Encouragement