The Social Dilemma
"Get off of your phone! Social media deteriorates your mental health! You’re so addicted to your phone, I don’t think you could go a week without it!” You’ve probably heard something along these lines at least once before, whether it be from a parent scolding you, a video you’ve watched in health class, or, most ironically, on social media itself. When my mom told me I should watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I was sceptical and assumed it would be just an elaborate version of my parents’ message to get off my phone, repeating the information I already knew. However, it left me genuinely bothered when I had finished watching the film: the depths of technology's manipulation were a lot deeper than I’d ever thought.
We all know how hard it is to put away our phones. But why? As a kid, I loved playing with dolls. When my parents told me to put it down and come to the table for dinner, I never fell into a state of anger, depression and irritability. I never brought a doll with me to keep fidgeting with it at the dinner table. I would put the doll down and go to the table, and never once during dinner did I stare at my doll while fighting the urge to go get it. Now, compare my old Barbie to my phone. What’s the difference? One of them is a passive tool that sits there until I feel like using it. The other is a sneaky, manipulative, mind-reading digital device with a hidden purpose that keeps calling out to me with a flash of light and a soft ding.
As the film reveals, technology uses programs written by people, but the program then teaches itself. It’s called Artificial Intelligence or AI. There’s a saying, “nobody knows you better than yourself.” With technology, that statement is no longer true. The digital person living in your device knows more about you than you do. This AI tracks every screen you’ve ever viewed. It knows if you’re an introvert or extrovert, what you like, what you hate, what you fear, who are your friends, who is your crush, who are your frenemies. It constantly collects data, and all that data gives it a very scary ability to know exactly how to trigger you, how to manipulate you, and how to keep you glued to the screen. That’s all it wants, to keep you glued to your screen.
Why does AI keep us glued to our screens for as many hours in the day as possible? The documentary points to the clear answer: money. The more we use Twitter or Instagram, the more money advertisers will pay the AI’s programmers. The ultimate goal behind all of this is to generate as much profit as possible. As we all are kept on our devices, the pop up advertisements show what exactly is on our minds.
The AI matches advertisements to each of us based on what it knows about us -- and it knows a lot about each of us. Tech companies use databases to build an image of you that's terrifyingly accurate. They’re able to predict what you’ll want, and can guarantee their advertisers that their business will succeed. Social media sells “certainty.” That is why the internet has made more money than any other business in history. Every notification, every app icon, every picture that shows up in our explore page is based on our internet habits and is designed to keep us glued to our screens.
So what’s the big deal if we all end up buying more stuff than we need? If that was the only result of social media, then there would be no problem. The problem is that social media, in its effort to keep us on it and make profits, creates negative effects.
Think about the LIKE feature in Instagram. It was created to spread positivity. Hey, nice pic, LIKE. But human nature kicks in, so what do we do? We all post to get likes. We keep checking our phone to see how many more likes our recent post got. We start out needing a few likes, and then a few dozen likes, and then a few hundred likes. When we don’t get enough, we get
depressed. If this sounds like addiction, that’s because it is. People, and especially teens, are addicted to the emotions that get triggered from their devices, and this addiction results in feelings of frustration, stress and irritability.
The statistics are scary. Teen suicide rates have shot up between 79% to 180% for various age groups over the last decade since 2010 when social media was born. The human brain has evolved, but not nearly at the same rate of technology and AI. Humans are built to handle the opinions of those in their “tribe”, like family, friends and some classmates. They were never built to handle criticism from thousands online. With apps such as Instagram, teens are chasing self-images that are neither possible nor healthy to obtain. Unrealistic beauty standards are set, and teenagers are in a race to win an unreachable prize. Eating disorders, suicide rates, self harm, and depression have all become more abundant with todays society. I asked my Dad how many kids in his high school saw a therapist. He laughed and said a therapist for a kid wasn’t really a thing “back in the day.” I quietly thought about how many teens I know who see a therapist, and I couldn’t bring myself to laugh with him.
AI doesn’t stop at playing with our emotions. It will feed us anything that keeps us from putting down the device, and we don’t put down the device when we hear what we want to hear. Facts don’t matter. The truth doesn’t matter. Social media has become a center filled with false information. The AI knows what each of us want to see and hear, and it will give it to us, no matter how ridiculous, just so we keep staring at the screen.
With everyone seeing and hearing only what each of us wants to see and hear, we end up living in our own realities. Fake news travels six times faster than real news on social media. Twitter, Youtube and TikTok are all amazing at spreading information, but none of it has to be true to spread on those platforms. You may remember when people were burning down cellphone towers because they thought it spread COVID-19. Though we may think this sounds stupid and insane, whatever source they got the information was enough to convince them. Whether they saw it on Instagram, a Youtube conspiracy channel, or an unreliable news website, they saw enough to convince them that they’d get a disease from a cellphone tower. When people disagree online, every side is positive that they’re correct. In a society where everybody believes false information, chaos is sure to follow. The whole world has been set to believe different things, and it’s tearing us apart.
Still, despite the negatives, technology and social media have done great things for our world. Without technology, we wouldn’t be able to continue our education during the pandemic. It reunites lost family members. It matches organ donors with patients. We can push a button on our phone and a car will appear to take us where we want to go. It can help make relationships stronger.
But it’s important to remember that there’s a dark side. The Social Dilemma features ex-employees who worked on and built the most influential social media platforms such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc. They walked away from their jobs because they felt an ethical need to spread awareness. The film did not reveal a clear solution to the problem, but awareness is a starting point. As one of them said, “there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.” None of us, including me, will give up the phone or quit social media. However, if we are all aware, maybe we can do something about it. It all starts with knowing what we’re dealing with here, and what we’re dealing with is huge. Humans created this issue, and now we need to find a way to stop or at least manage it..