Following is a summary of our webinar titled “Social Media Dilemma: Do’s and Don’ts” by Shaykh Bilal Ansari. The below does not comprehensively cover the contents of the entire webinar nor may it represent it fully as it is from the perspective of the summarizer. To view a recording of the webinar, please click here.
Social media is part of the lives of a lot of people for many reasons. Nearly half of human population are active internet users, among them 2.078 billion have active social media accounts. 70% of 12-17 year olds use social media on a regular basis and 53% of surveyed social media users said it changed their behaviour. Therefore, we can understand from this that social media has the ability to affect our lives quite deeply.
Here are a few questions that all of us, who use social media, should be asking ourselves: How is our social media use really benefiting us? Or is it harming us in any way? Do we really need social media in our lives? If we do, how do we exactly strike a balance for healthy use of social media?
To explore these questions further, let us break down the term social media first. The word social is defined as being related to involving activities or the tending to form co-operative relationships with others. It also relates to companionship, so social interaction is an interaction where one is trying to create companionships with others. Media can be defined as a medium of cultivation, conveyance and expression. It also means to express our interactions, including those which are expressed in an online setting.
The widespread use of easy, online means of communication is most clearly highlighted through the aforementioned statistics. How should we, therefore, go about dealing with social media in our lives? To answer this, we first need to answer three questions: (1) What is the purpose of our online presence? (2) How much socialization is good for us? (3) What are the consequences of our exposure to a variety of ideologies online?
What is the purpose of our online presence?
What is the purpose of the internet and how should we view it? Our approach to the internet should be that we use it as a resource for legitimately beneficial reasons such as conducting business, learning, providing education, research and communication. The questions which we must then ask ourselves are: Is the internet improving our education? Is it improving our communication? Is it improving our research? In other words, do we truly need it? Is it genuinely benefiting us in such areas? If so, then here is where we should draw the line on the extent of our usage because too much of anything that affects our worship is not good for us.
How much socialization is good for us?
Excessive socialization can be harmful to us. Imam Ghazali (may Allah have mercy on him) discusses the various opinions regarding social interaction and social isolation in his Ihya ul-Uloom. He mentions how many of the scholars, such as Fudayl ibn Iyad and Sufyan al-Thawri (may Allah have mercy on them), were of the opinion that social isolation was better than interaction (while there were other scholars who were of the opposite view and each had their evidences).
At times even the Sahabah would prefer social isolation. Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas (may Allah be pleased with him) once said that he wished that between him and people there would be a door of iron that would prevent him from speaking to them and from them speaking to him until he met Allah Most High.
Generally, one should delegate some time where they can isolate themselves. Today however, we find that often we are engaged in more interaction and distraction while being at home than we would while being outside of the home due to easy online communication through social media. This therefore results in the home becoming a place of distraction rather than peace and tranquility.
What are the consequences of our exposure to a variety of ideologies online?
Constant interaction through social media will naturally expose us to a variety of ideologies such as reductionist science, atheistic philosophy, agnosticism, etc. This should cause us to ponder over how much we are exposing ourselves to on a daily basis due to our constant connection to social media. We must be careful not to constantly expose ourselves to problematic ideologies as it is possible that such constant exposure will affect the way we think.
Furthermore, social media is also a place where we are always exposing ourselves to other people’s lives which may as well be presented in a way in which they are not. We find that social media sometimes invites us to escape towards that which may as well be fake while the Qur’an tells us to escape to Allah, it teaches us to escape to a higher reality which is the Hereafter.
Now, we will look at the four dimensions of self-development (physical, psychological, intellectual and spiritual) and the advantages and disadvantages to each due to our interactions on social media:
Undoubtedly, many people will have benefitted from social media by picking up on tips to improve health. However, a very obvious physical disadvantage is that constant use of social media often brings about laziness and therefore a reduction in exercise. After all, it is designed to occupy our time. Because physical health is a part of our religion, we should be careful not to neglect it.
There are some people who suffer from an extreme lack of social interaction. For them social media can be a means of making up the lack of in-person interaction through social media interactions. At the same time, addiction is a clear disadvantage. In fact, one study found that 63% of Americans login to Facebook daily and of them, 40% check Facebook multiple times. People will often become addicted to the positive reinforcements associated with such interaction making it difficult to stop.
Another harm is lifestyle comparison. Many a time people will present their life as such that we find ourselves making comparisons with them. In a survey conducted in 2012 in the UK, 53% people who were surveyed said that social media had changed their overall behaviour in life and of those people 51% said it was negative behaviour. Why was this so? They explained this by saying it was due to a decline in confidence they felt because of unfair comparisons to others.
Lifestyle comparison also creates restlessness. In another survey, two thirds of people who were surveyed mentioned that they had a difficult time relaxing because when they get detached from social media accounts they cannot relax. A psychologist mentioned that as a result of social media there is this fear of missing out. As part of this you feel pressured into engaging in other things because you’re so up to date with what’s happening in other people’s lives. This can include things pertaining to religion too, for example, when you read that a person has been to such and such a conference or class. What happens is that you constantly feel like you’re missing out which can then psychologically affect you.
Benefits under this category are shown by the fact that many scholars are engaged with certain forms of social media and it improves their research. It can be a means of finding out when books are published in different fields, for example.
On the other hand, we often find ourselves doing various tasks at the same time but not properly. We may find that we’re losing focus. It could be that we are so used to occupying ourselves all the time with social media and the internet in general that it is negatively affecting intellectual development. Often we’re interacting so much online that we don’t actually spend enough time in the real world, for example at the library or engaging with the community in general so we’re not learning some of the basic skills that are needed for intellectual development.
Clearly there are many spiritual harms of social media however, perhaps surprisingly, social media can also be a means of spiritual development for those who are not able to connect with spiritual guides in person. While the positives certainly exist, the negative impacts on one’s spirituality due to over interaction on social media is a real problem.
Imam Ghazali (may Allah have mercy on him) mentions that over interaction desensitizes us to the unlawful. Often, over exposure to things can reduce our understanding of the severity of some impermissible things and the value of seemingly small things. For example, suppose one saw a scholar giving a khutbah while wearing a gold ring. It would be something which would probably produce strong reactions. However, if one were to hear that same scholar backbiting, how many of us would have the same reaction? Yet, backbiting is a worse sin than wearing a gold ring for a man yet we do not treat it as such due to desensitization to the unlawful.
Key Advice for Social Media Users
A lot much of our engagement on the internet is futile and we often find ourselves occupied in that which doesn’t not bring benefit to us. Our ability to identify what is beneficial to us and what is harmful is weakened as a result of over exposure to the impermissible.
Constriction of the soul itself is a result of not enough dhikr and too much social interaction. We should try to become accustomed in spending at least one hour a day in the dhikr of Allah according to some scholars.
The following is a piece of advice by the Messenger of Allah ﷺ himself which we can apply to our own use of social media:
Uqbah bin Amir (may Allah be pleased with him) asked, “O Messenger of Allah, what is salvation?” Heﷺ replied:
“Control your tongue; let your home suffice you; and weep upon your mistakes.” (Tirmidhi)
“Control your tongue” in the context of social media would mean that we must control what we post. “Let your home suffice you” means our homes should be the place of peace, a place to avoid haram. “Weep upon your mistakes” means there will be times when we will post things on social media that we shouldn’t have or we will have seen things that we shouldn’t have. We will make mistakes and we ought to weep upon those mistakes.
Five Brief Recommendations
Despite the spiritual, physical, psychological and intellectual harms of social media, we cannot get rid of it but what we can do is balance our use of it so that we can gain the benefits it contains. There are scholars who are engaged in social media for example, but their usage is controlled. The following are five brief recommendations pertaining to our use of social media.
1. Only engage in social media when it is beneficial. Only participate in those social media platforms where the benefit is clear to you.
2. Avoid the unlawful wherever it is. We will be exposed to the lawful and unlawful but we must avoid the unlawful wherever it may be on the internet. Be careful about following people who are very unrestrictive about what they post and be cautious about posting that which other people should not see.
3. Set limits for yourself. If you’re speaking to family or friends for example, do not be checking twitter accounts at the same time.
4. Monitor yourself and allow others to monitor you too. Consider how many marriages have broken up due to improper interactions through social media.
5. Balance your life. Prioritize real, in-person interactions over social media interactions.
In conclusion, the harms and benefits of social media will be present but it is our own individual choice as to how we go about dealing with it. Depending on how we go about dealing with it, we can either become affected by the harm it contains or gain the benefit it contains. It is also necessary for us to strike a wise balance in our engagement with social media platforms and this point is summarized succinctly by the great Imam, al-Shafi’i (may Allah have mercy on him), as follows:
“Constriction (in interaction) with people results in the acquisition of their enmity. Expansion (of interaction) with people results in the attraction of their evil. Be, therefore, between constriction and expansion.”