A Psychotherapist on Social Media: “It’s Like a School Playground”

Photo courtesy of: Laura Pasquini

Interview with psychotherapist and author Christopher Burn about social media addiction and his new book on recovery

by Manuela Boghian
  1. Please tell me a few words about yourself

Thirty years ago I was a frustrated and self defeating accountant. The recovery from alcoholism gave me a new start. I became a psychotherapist, a writer and someone who wanted to enjoy life rather than survive. In that sense, addiction was the worst and the best thing that happened to me and it certainly defined my life.

  1. How did you decide to write “The Fun We Had: How to Enjoy Life in Recovery”?

I enjoy writing and I do it to clarify my own thoughts. I want to share what I write with other people hoping that it may help them somehow.

The book is a collection of articles and poems on the subject of addiction and the joy of recovery. I strongly believe that recovery should make you ‘better than well’ otherwise what’s the point? We all need to listen to the music of life.

TS Eliot wrote: ‘You are the music, while the music lasts’, so we’d better get on with it, as time goes quickly. And that music needs to be ‘The kind of music that makes me dance about my room on my own – and still feel I’m at the best party in the world,” as someone in recovery told me recently.

  1. What do you think about social media?
Photo: Chris Burn

Unlike some people, I love social media, especially Facebook. If I post a poem or a picture and people around the world hit the ‘like’ button or post a comment, then I get a feeling of connection. I love to see what my online friends are doing as well. Facebook can be a great power for good but there are obvious downsides too. Like chocolate…

Social media is also good for building a community feeling — especially for therapeutic reasons. In addiction recovery you need to surround yourself with like-minded people who are going to give you support and examples of what they’re doing.

  1. Is social media addiction something we need to worry about?

I talk about social media addiction in my book. The main message would be that like alcohol, social media in small quantities can be pleasurable and can actually help you in a number of ways but it has the potential of being addictive and harmful as well. It’s better to be proactive rather than reactive to social media.

There are far more people alive in the world than a hundred years ago, yet loneliness and isolation are everywhere. We respond to this in different ways, but for those with the addictive gene, learning a behaviour that gives us pleasure triggers a reaction in our brain in the same manner as say, alcohol; it makes us want more and more. Consequences of this appear and it is our choice whether we continue or not.

  1. Have you met people who are addicted to social media?

I have seen patients in therapy who spend too much time on social media and they get defensive about their use or abusive when it comes to limiting the amount of time they spend online. A lot of people are not aware that using social media can lead to addictive behaviour.

In a mild way, I think probably I’m addicted to social media myself. I spend too much time on it and I get anxious if I haven’t looked at my Facebook account for a few hours. I need to take some action.

  1. How do people become addicted?

Social media is designed to be addictive, to pull you in. For example, the way that you can send instant reactions — this kind of online interaction keeps you in front of the screen working at it, even though it’s all a bit superficial.

Performing a small action on social media that brings you a pleasurable response very readily can be like smoking a cigarette. You need to be aware of why you’re doing something.

It also uses a fairly small part of the brain: if you take a photograph of your breakfast, put it online, wait until someone reacts to it and then you respond with something meaningless — that’s a pretty primitive interaction. It’s almost like going back to sign language — exchanging images rather than having an intellectual conversation.

  1. How to resist the pull of social media?

It helps if you’re aware of the fact that if you have real friends, you probably communicate with them not on Facebook, but in another way, that’s more rewarding. Facebook is good for people you don’t know. For example, I don’t communicate with my family on Facebook, I’d rather speak with them by phone or face to face. I also don’t bother speaking on Facebook with people I know I’m going to meet.

  1. How do we know when we’re using internet and social media too much?

Unless you live in the wilderness of Tierra Del Fuego or somewhere similarly remote, I would think that a good guide would be this: if you spend more time with your social media friends than face to face with people, and if you prefer interacting with your social media friends and even find that you are excluding real personal friends, to the extent that such contacts are diminishing in number, then you should re-assess your lifestyle.

  1. What is a good reaction when someone is using social media instead of being present in a social situation?

If you meet somebody by chance and they’re spending a lot of time on the phone, it’s up to you if that’s acceptable or not. You can’t tell them to stop, but you need to decide if you want to be in the company of people like that. For me, I wouldn’t want to be in the company of people who give me half their attention. You can’t make the world conform with your expectations but you can make the choice if you’re going to put up with other people’s behaviour or not.

If it’s a family member or someone close, you can tell them “Do you mind not doing that?” or you can make your views clear: “I really don’t like what you’re doing.” or “Do you want to talk to me or the phone?”

  1. How can we use social media in a healthy way?

I see social media, particularly Facebook, as like the school playground. I think the same rules of behaviour apply. People don’t much like a poser, a bully or a bore, they don’t want to be pushed around or coerced, they like to come and go and interact as they want.

On the other hand, a lot of good friendships start in the school playground but are much more questionable when starting from scratch on Facebook, where you should proceed with great caution, particularly if a young person.

Although social media can be tremendously helpful, it is not the same as the friends in your neighbourhood who can help you when your car won’t start or when you have forgotten your door key, because charity begins at home and a flat screen is not home, it is just a flat screen.

Social media can be used healthily when creating communities: a group of people who will help each other in some way — by giving support, opinions or sharing a common interest. You can establish groups in the school playground as well, but you don’t want to spend all your time in the playground as there are more things to do and meaningful relationships to be developed outside the playground.

So, use it, but in a considerate manner.

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