The Social Dilemma
, the new documentary on Netflix, starts with a quote from Socrates: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.”
By the time the credits roll, ‘curse’ feels like a gross understatement. Jeff Orlowski
talks to some of the minds behind the social media behemoths that have invaded our lives, and the terrifying toll they have on our habits, our mental health, and even the way we perceive reality.
“A false perception of perfection”
Many of the talking heads describe their good intentions: the inventor of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button just wanted to spread a little positivity. But their optimism is undermined by the science behind their inventions. We’re told that the notifications we get about our friends’ activity online creates "positive intermittent reinforcements". It’s the same psychological trick that gets gamblers in Las Vegas to keep pulling slot machines. Even the minds behind these apps aren’t immune: Tim Kendall, the former president of Pinterest, openly admits becoming addicted to his own product.
This never-ending search for dopamine hits in the form of validation is fundamentally changing the way we see each other, and ourselves. "We curate our lives around this false perception of perfection,” says Chamath Palihapitiya
, a former senior Facebook VP. For young children - particularly girls - not finding that perfection can be devastating. According to the documentary, US hospital admissions for non-fatal self-harm have gone up by 189% among 10-14 year old girls since social media became mainstream. The rate of suicide has gone up by 151%.
“A chance to reset”
In 2006, Al Gore tried to start a conversation about climate change and global warming with An Inconvenient Truth, and warned about the dire consequences if humanity didn’t change course. 14 years later, the sky over California is on fire. The effects of letting social media continue unchecked may be less visible, but they won’t be any less devastating.
At the end of The Social Dilemma, the interviewees offer some advice on how to get free of social media’s grip. Turn off all notifications, or even delete your apps. Leave your phone in another room when you go to bed. It’s sound advice, but it won’t solve the underlying issue - just as taking canvas bags to the supermarket or banning plastic straws won’t solve climate change.
Caroline Allams and Manjit Sareen, co-founders of Natterhub - a gated social media platform designed to teach primary school children about online safety - believe that the surest path to a brighter future lies in education.
“Nobody in the world of tech set out to create a monster,” says Sareen, the company’s CEO. “We know that social media can be a tool for great things, and a source of joy for people. But left unchecked, it’s a tool that has been abused and created an awful lot of anxiety and esteem issues in children.”
Meanwhile, Chief Creative Allams’ resolve was strengthened by watching the documentary with her 12 year-old daughter: “Children need to be educated around social media. We need to reinforce skills like kindness and empathy, and give children the resilience to deal with the bumps in the road."
“This is a chance to reset the way we look at social media. If we can teach the next generation to think differently about these tools then they can grow up into adults with the determination and the ability to create systemic change, and improve our behavioural and emotional relationships with technology.”