Last month Netflix released a 90-minute documentary on the darker side of our continual dependence on social media titled The Social Dilemma. Jeff Orlowski’s documentary focuses solely on the dangerous human impacts of social media, how addicted many have become to it and how social media companies design their apps to adversely affect our lives. Now while this latest exposé is not the first documentary exploring this issue, it adopts a novel approach to analysing an old topic.
Whistleblowers and ex-employees of top social networking companies who helped develop many of the social networking products we consume today were invited to shed more light on the dark sides of social networking sites and they left no stones unturned. This documentary has been hailed as the most important documentary of the year because it discusses a very topical issue especially with the highly divisive and polarised political atmosphere seen right across the world.
I can tell you firsthand that it made for quite a gripping watch because here are five things I learnt from watching this documentary:
1. We have a social media problem.
On some level, most of us can admit that too much exposure to social media is unhealthy but when it comes to our personal lives, we often assume that we are not as affected as the rest of the world. The problem with this assumption, aside from it being wrong, is that as a result of our dismissive arrogance, we fail to work on the problem in our own lives. If you’re not sure whether you’re addicted to social networks, I dare you to remember the last time you went a full week without checking any of your social media accounts.
Related Post: I Tried to Take a Digital Cleanse – But Failed to Unplug
It is important that you realize the extent to which our continued exposure takes a toll on our physical and mental wellbeing. The more frequently we use social media, the more likely we are to grapple with poor mental health, anxiety and depression. One of the reasons for this is that social media apps are designed to fuel unrealistic comparisons. By allow you to see the carefully selected and beautifully captured best parts of everyone else’s lives, you can’t help but form unrealistic expectations of a “happy” and “successful” life. The result is that you will compare these curated and airbrushed versions of other people’s lives with the ‘negatives’ in your own life, become consumed by it and remain trapped in chasing the mirage that is a farce.
What’s more? “There are all these services on the Internet that we think off as free, but they’re not free. They’re paid for by advertisers,” explains Justin Rosenstein, programmer, and entrepreneur who co-created the iconic Facebook like button. He further clarifies that users are the products, with their attention literally being the item sold to advertisers.
2. Social media really is designed to be addictive.
One of the toughest things I learnt from The Social Dilemma doco is that social media really is designed to be addictive. Neuroscientists compare social media interaction to a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system. The constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from these sites affect the brain’s reward area and triggers the same kind of chemical reaction as other drugs, such as cocaine.
A 2018 study by Harvard University shows how self-disclosure on social networking sites lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking an addictive substance and the experts in the documentary reiterate this fact. They explain that the platforms are designed to hook you in and keep you scrolling because, according to Tim Kendall former president of Pinterest, “the business model is to keep people engaged on the screen”.
There is also FOMO: a form of anxiety you experience when you’re scared of missing out on a positive experience that someone else is having. And if for some reason our social media use is restricted for a given period of time, it is not unusual for us to experience withdrawal symptoms, and to quickly revert to our excessive social media usage after the restricted period.
3. Our children are at risk.
The dark sides of these online platforms undoubtedly affect us all, but children and younger users are more at risk than the rest of us. The reason for this is simple– this generation of youngsters were born into the social media menace and so have grown to believe that spending several hours of precious time on it as well as the unrealistic portrayals of people and their lives is normal. They have little or no point of reference for what life looks or feels like outside their digital villages and so, when that online community seems not to approve of their lives and choices or they’re playing a charade that feels inauthentic to them but is approved by others online (as is often the case), they can spiral easily into an abyss of anxiety and depression.
In the social media documentary, Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., a Social Psychologist from the New York University School of Business, notes the “gigantic increase” in cases of depression and anxiety among American teenagers at the start of the decade, spurred on by social media addiction. Young girls aged 10-14 saw a 151 percent increase compared to the first decade of the century and as if this isn’t enough, cyberbullying has made a bad situation even worse. By enabling cruel people to tear into others online, with little effort, this form of bullying has become increasingly common and most of us have seen what it can do to a young person.
4. Our governments are doing little to solve the problem.
Some world governments seem to have woken up to the social problem being pushed by big tech and social networking companies. Still, waiting on the government to take actual steps to fight the current issues posed by social networking sites will prove to be a painfully long wait. For instance, if you watched any of the sittings over the last year where the heads of these companies appeared before the US Congress, you’d have come to the conclusion that we are in dire straits as most of the congress members and lawmakers generally charged with the formulation of good government policies seem not to grasp what is at stake. They barely understand enough of the basic tenets of social technology to be able to discern the problem it poses, not to talk of finding solutions to them. Dig a little deeper and you may even surmise that the ones who understand, are majorly concerned with politicising the issue. In the end, the talks wind up with each side figuring out how best to utilize it for the advantages and political points.
5. You can (and must) make the changes on your own.
Ultimately, you need to understand that it is up to you to figure out how to use social media without causing yourself any psychological distress. If you aren’t paying for the products, realize that you are the product. Even before I watched the documentary I had been taking steps towards reducing my social media usage and curbing the general screen time for my devices. Now, having realized more deeply this need to reduce my screen exposure, I have doubled down on my conscious efforts and have made immense progress so far.
You could start by deleting the apps you visit more than the rest. If you have to rely on your browser to check your Instagram profile for instance, you can gradually wean yourself off the network my setting daily time limits. Use apps that help to track your usage, or if you have an iPhone, you can also check this by heading to Settings > Screen Time and > See All Activity). There are also search engines such as Duckduckgo that help you visit websites without being continuously tracked. This means that fewer companies are capitalising on your data and aren’t profiting from influencing your online behaviour with advertising and product recommendations. With that, you are more likely to read what you came to read and not get drawn into the rabbit hole of recommended videos, articles and other time-sucking items.
Most importantly though, you need to create offline pleasures and build on that habit. Habits are the building blocks of our lives and remember that how we spend our precious hours is in fact how we spend our lives. Use the time – online and offline – wisely.
Editor’s note: In an uncharacteristic move, Facebook has fired back at the documentary’s allegations by issuing a one-page response:
“Rather than offer a nuanced look at technology, it gives a distorted view of how social media platforms work to create a convenient scapegoat for what are difficult and complex societal problems. The film’s creators do not include insights from those currently working at the companies or any experts that take a different view to the narrative put forward by the film.
They also don’t acknowledge—critically or otherwise—the efforts already taken by companies to address many of the issues they raise. Instead, they rely on commentary from those who haven’t been on the inside for many years.”
To read the entire response click here.
- Deep Work: How I Learned to Focus in the Age of Distraction
- Keyboard Warriors: Does Signing an Online Petition Actually Achieve Anything?
- Why Social Media Detoxes Are Necessary to a Sustainable Life
- What People Really Think of Social Media Influencers
- Top 10 Films and Documentaries on the Subject of Fairtrade
- 3 Ways to Embrace Unbusyness and Live a Greener, Intentional Life
- 4 Ways You Can Strengthen Your Mental Resilience Today
Cover image by Ketut Subiyanto.