How to Include Social Media Behavior in Your 4th Step Inventory

By Christopher Dale 01/10/18

A good rule of thumb: The more we treat social media like a battleground, the less spiritually fit we are.

Angry woman looking at iPad.
Do we engage in lastword-ism – stubbornly disallowing "the other side" a final say?

It’s no secret that technology has changed the way we act. On average, we check our smartphones 80 times per day, roughly once every 11 minutes. Millennials check over 150 times daily. It’s probably the most widespread addictive behavior in the world.

It may also be the fastest to spread: A scant 11 years ago, smartphones didn't even exist. Back in this now unfathomable Dark Age, a.k.a. 2006, social media barely existed either. That year, Facebook had 12 million users; today, it's approaching two billion. So swift is technology's march that the previous decade seems like prehistory.

Technology also is changing the way we interact. Social media platforms provide previously impossible ways to display character defects as well as assets. It’s a beast that, even in its infancy, has already altered our nature.

Everyone’s Facebook and Twitter feeds are a medley of grandstanding and sincerity, self-serving spin and refreshing honesty, humblebrags and actual humility. A lot of lying, a lot of love, and a few cat videos for good measure.

Through it all, our online interactions have quirks and nuances not found elsewhere. We’re at the point where we’re all part avatar.

Considering this, for those in 12-step recovery, working a truly thorough Step 4 must take our online lives into consideration. Today, no searching and fearless moral inventory is complete without examining our behavior on social media.

Here are three social media themes worth considering for Step 4 inventories.

1. Are We Constantly Branding Ourselves?

Online as elsewhere, it’s advisable to put our best foot forward. But on social media, this notion is often exaggerated to the point of self-aggrandizing vanity, bright-side-only posturing and plain, simple dishonesty. Smiling newlyweds. Smiling children. Smiling vacationers. Our Facebook feeds have become a desktop Disneyland, a magical yet mythical place where everything and everyone is perfect.

Studies have shown that Facebook can cause unhappiness, and takes a particular toll on those with tendencies toward jealousy – a seemingly common character defect in those of us with addiction. When we experience our friends and family exclusively in best-of-times snapshots and snippets, the natural reaction is “Why aren’t I that happy?”

Our response is predictable but pathetic: We try to out-brand the branders, to beat ‘em by joining ‘em. In an environment where we’re constantly spinning life events favorably and sharing only our happiest, proudest moments, we present to our cyber-audience a shiny, sanitized version of ourselves. We act via avatar - and seldom convincingly.

As a set of people with particular problems showing our true selves, people with addiction can’t afford to engage in this sort of spit-shining. Normal folks may be able to get away with it; not us.

There’s a difference between being mindful of what we say in a public forum and creating a veneered version of ourselves. The latter doesn’t square with the honesty-driven stepwork necessary for meaningful recovery.

2. Do We Respect Others - Even in Disagreement?

Learning to accept and respect others is, of course, an important part of real-world recovery. Here, social media offers a unique testing ground.

In person, when someone says something disagreeable—even in a group setting—it permeates the room for a few seconds, is potentially met with some dissension, and generally passes. Vitriol is typically limited since, as cool and tough as we might envision ourselves, we're usually not looking to cause a scene or, worse, a physical altercation. This should be especially true in sobriety.

Conversely, conflict on social media is ubiquitous and permanent: Remarks taunt and fester, dangling in perpetuity for scores of friends and family to see. They beg for a comeback – one made behind the safety of a screen. We can bide our time, select just the right manifesto, and blast the offending party with all our cyber-strength.

How we approach these scenarios on social media is telling. Do we respectfully disagree or, when that isn't possible, simply leave it be? Do we "respond in kind," ignoring that – given our checkered pasts – we've often been poor determiners of proportionate responses? Or do we escalate, responding to short sentiments of disagreement with tomes that belittle transgressors with our superior intellect?

Worse yet: do we troll? Do we start cyber conflict rather than simply continue it? And upon witnessing a running social media spat, do we jump into the fray, helping an ally shout down a detractor until the day is won? Do we engage in lastword-ism – stubbornly disallowing "the other side" a final say?

A good rule of thumb: The more we treat social media like a battleground, the less spiritually fit we are.

3. Do We Respect Ourselves ?

Among sobriety’s most rewarding gifts is learning, sliver by sliver, who we really are. We were so inebriated and insane for so long that we lost ourselves; many of us never knew ourselves to begin with before finding recovery.

Part of this journey is discovering, gradually and organically, the people we're truly attracted to as friends. The flip side, of course, is realizing the need to let certain people go.

Some are remnants of a former life we no longer wish to lead. Some we outgrow as we progress while they stagnate. And some... well, some people are just assholes.

A pitfall of social media is that it makes this natural winnowing process more awkward—and potentially offensive—than it otherwise would be. Regardless, we must be prepared to sever ties when appropriate.

Personally, I started with the bigots and, in the years since, have continued paring my online connections for a variety of reasons. You can learn a lot about people by what they post on social media; sometimes, you learn they simply aren't worth knowing.

Will some take offense at this? Probably. But that isn't our concern. Detach with love—or at least without resentment—and go forward. In sobriety, we must stop trying to control everything, including others' feelings. People grow apart, and that's perfectly OK. Wish the person well with a silent invocation, click Unfriend, and move on.

A Tool, Not a Weapon

As with our analog lives, our online actions must be steeped in honesty and reinforced with good intentions.

Social media is an incredible tool, allowing us to stay in touch with people despite distance or time impoverishment. In sobriety, I’m happy to say that I’ve rekindled several healthy relationships and, through dovetailing interests and shared principles, converted mere acquaintances into full-fledged friends.

But social media has a decided dark side, one that invites us to paint pristine, often wildly inaccurate self portraits, and to engage in loaded vitriol of a sort we’d never dare spew face to face. Dishonesty and useless anger have no place in sobriety, online or off.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.