Dr. Brian Primack was not in the Tree of Life building on the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, when an antisemitic gunman murdered 11 worshippers and seriously injured two others. But his wife and daughter had been in the building just one week earlier.
As the community began to heal, Primack, a former Pittsburgher and medical researcher, and now the dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, found himself “frequently returning to the question of what role social media had played in these events,” he told the Chronicle.
While, according to news reports, the gunman’s violent tendencies were encouraged on a social media site, members of the wider community were using other social media platforms to support those affected by the massacre and start the healing process. Seeing that, Primack said he realized “what a double-edged sword social media is.”
That realization was the inspiration for his new book, “You Are What You Click: How Being Selective, Positive, and Creative Can Transform Your Social Media Experience,” based on Primack’s research connecting an increase in social media use to a rise in depression and loneliness. One particular study referenced in the book, for example, cites research showing that a person who uses many different social media platforms is up to three times more likely to suffer from depression than someone who only uses one platform — even if the two users are spending the same amount of time online.
Building from that and other insights, in “You Are What You Click,” Primack suggests ways to maximize the social media experience for positive outcomes.
“It’s no secret that social media is a phenomenon in today’s world,” Primack said. “Some people have found that those who use social media paradoxically feel more lonely, depressed and anxious. Our research has been trying to figure out what the relationships are here. Social media can be very valuable, but it also carries a lot of risks.”
Prior to moving to the University of Arkansas, Primack lived in Pittsburgh for two decades and was a member of both Congregation Beth Shalom and Congregation Dor Hadash. He was dean of the Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh and also founding director of Pitt’s multidisciplinary Center for Research on Media, Technology, which has garnered multiple top research awards.
Primack, a practicing Jew, has taught adult education courses on the topic of social media and spirituality. Because so much of a person’s free time these days is spent looking at their phone, he said, there is less time for personal reflection.
“I’ve often thought about this through a Jewish lens,” Primack said. “We take a media break during Shabbat. Even if you do not celebrate the Sabbath, it’s an option to at least have a media break during that time.”
It’s challenging, he added, “to juggle all of these idiosyncratic worlds. I changed my own behavior on social media and I realized it was overwhelming to keep up with all of these different worlds without focusing on any one of them.”
As part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture Series, on Sept. 28, Primack will give a virtual presentation on “You Are What You Click,” spirituality, the writing process and his links to Pittsburgh. The event is free with registration at pittsburghlectures.org/lectures/brian-primack/.
“You Are What You Click” will be officially released on Sept. 14. PJC
Sarah Abrams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.