The Social Dilemma

By Annie O’Dea

According to Facebook’s website, its mission is, “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together… to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” According to The Social Dilemma, its real goal is to make money and sell products to customers. Except we, the users, aren’t the customers; we are the products.

The Social Dilemma is a Sundance documentary that was initially released in January but premiered on Netflix in September after undergoing some changes. It is an alarming yet engaging critic on the threat of social media in today’s world. It is an eye opening and, honestly, overwhelming experience being that social media platforms have never been so exposed; it brings up secrets that the industry has kept hidden for years. After watching, it is impossible to look at technology in the same way.

The documentary consists mostly of a mashup of different interviews with former Silicon Valley employees, and I’m not talking about people with minor positions; I’m talking about positions like the president of Pinterest, the co- inventor of Google Drive, Gmail Chat, Facebook Pages, and the Facebook like button, the head of consumer product at Twitter, and the director of monetization at Facebook. All, after seeing the damaging effects of social media, have turned their backs on the industry.

The overarching “dilemma” can be broken down into three sub-categories: the mental health dilemma, the democracy dilemma, and the discrimination dilemma. It would be impossible to cover every important point that The Social Dilemma makes, so I am going to focus on the mental health dilemma.

Social media is changing the way we think. It is changing the way that the human brain works. We have gradually become addicted to it because of the use of persuasive techniques like notifications, advertisements, and videos that are geared to keep us scrolling. Everything about it is enticing; these companies have so much data about us that they can create an extremely accurate model of us that predicts our actions. “All of the things we’ve ever done, all the clicks we’ve ever made, all the videos we’ve watched, all the likes, that all gets brought back into building a more and more accurate model.”

All this time spent on our phones is affecting our mental health by taking over our senses of self-worth and identity. We were built to seek the approval of others around us, and social media has expanded that need of approval exponentially with hundreds, or thousands, of followers looking at our posts. Our “perceived sense of perfection” revolves around short-term signals like hearts, likes, and thumbs-up. That short-term popularity, “forces you into this vicious cycle where you’re like, “What’s the next thing I need to do now? ‘Cause I need it back.”

Social media is greatly increasing the depression rates in teenagers. Since 2010 and 2011, the number of teenage girls out of 100,000 in this country who were admitted to a hospital every year because they cut themselves or otherwise harmed themselves has gone up 62% for older teen girls and 189% for preteen girls, almost triple the number it was before. The suicide rates for older teenage girls has gone up 70%, and for preteen girls it has gone up 151%. These extremely alarming numbers can be traced back to social media usage, as Gen Z is the first generation to have social media in middle school. We spend all of our time on social media and it is making us more depressed and anxious, “They’re much less comfortable taking risks. The rates at which they get driver’s licenses have been dropping. The number who have ever gone out on a date or had any kind of romantic interaction is dropping rapidly. This is a real change in a generation.”

Don’t get it wrong, technology and social media have brought lots of goodness to the world by connecting us in new ways never even imagined. “When we were making the like button, our entire motivation was, “Can we spread positivity and love in the world?” The idea that, fast-forward to today, and teens would be getting depressed when they don’t have enough likes, or it could be leading to political polarization was nowhere on our radar.” It has become a simultaneous utopia and dystopia. The makers of The Social Dilemma are asking that companies focus on and regulate the ethics of their technology as it is preying on human weaknesses to increase usage, and in turn, to increase their revenue.

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