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Unpacking ‘The Social Dilemma’

The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has garnered much attention in recent weeks,  in mainstream media and ironically on the social media platforms that were vilified in the documentary.

The Social Dilemma proposes that social media companies manipulate users by using algorithms and persuasive design principles that result in ‘addiction’ to their platforms. It also suggests that these popular platforms harvest personal data to target users with advertisements and that many of these dubious practices have gone about unregulated.

So is the moral panic, concern and fear-mongering warranted?

STRENGTHS OF THE ‘DOCUMENTARY’

// It’s been a catalyst for broader societal conversations- if anything, this documentary has brought to the forefront some of the perils of social media and the Internet more broadly. Issues related to young people’s mental health (although I must point out that the research, at this stage, is predominantly correlational and doesn’t prove causation), unhealthy digital behaviours, privacy issues, data mining and agency were all issues that viewers of the documentary had to confront.

// It forced people to seriously consider issues related to problematic digital behaviours– characters in the drama aspect of the documentary provided tangible examples of the impact of unhealthy or problematic digital habits on both individuals and family units. It humanised and personalised serious issues that families around the globe are facing. One of the protagonists, Ben, succumbs to conspiracy videos, disconnects from his friends and family and loses sleep because of his tech habits. These are everyday issues that families face in the online world and there are often serious consequences. Yes, there was a lot of over-acting in my opinion, but the characters provided a realistic insight into the complex issues that digital dependence and distraction can pose, especially for families with children and adolescents.

// Clearly articulated that we’re living in an attention economy- as a long-term reader of Tristan Harris’s work, one of the guests in the documentary who was the ex-Google Design Ethicist, I’ve long touted that our attention is severely under threat in the online world. I believe and this documentary echoed the sentiment that we’re now operating in an attention economy. One of the superskills of the 21st Century will be how to cultivate your attention. [That’s why I’ve developed programs for students, teachers and corporate teams about this very problem.]

// It highlighted that technology is no substitute for real in-person relationships and connection– we know that the brain releases oxytocin, the social bonding hormone, when we’re in close physical contact. Oxytocin lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to other people. It’s sometimes referred to as the social bonding hormone. This exemplifies that digital connection, whilst it certainly serves a purpose, is not a viable alternative for real connection in-person.

// Raised concerns about privacy, data mining, political interference, radicalisation, misinformation and bullying– this was one of the most perturbing parts of the documentary. I’d previously read about political interference and radicalisation, but was unaware of how prolific and profound the impact was. I’m not an expert in these areas so I don’t feel like I should comment further, other than to acknowledge that these important issues were raised and warrant further elaboration and consideration.

 

CONCERNS WITH THE DOCUMENTARY

// Alarmist without pragmatic solutions- my biggest gripe with the movie (besides the overacting) is that it educated people about a raft of problems and perils with the online world, but fell short in terms of providing pragmatic solutions. For example, suggesting that families use transparent plastic boxes to manage their teens’ smartphone use is far too simplistic (and completely unrealistic given that we know that just seeing your digital device is often enough to make you want to crave it- the visual can be a psychological trigger). Would the documentary have gained the popularity and prompted the social discourse that it has, had the producers included solutions? I’m doubtful. When you’re left feeling that the world is in tatters and the future of our young people is doom-and-gloom, you’re much more likely to feel emotional and possibly stressed and this may in turn prompt you to discuss the issue and therefore, further perpetuate its popularity.

// Inaccurate use of research and statistics to cause concerns- Cherrypicked data from large datasets was used during the section on young people’s mental health and social media use. It’s important to reiterate that the research at hand, shows a correlation, not causation when it comes to the impact of smartphones and social media on poor mental health outcomes, self-harm and suicide rates. My Kristy-hypothesis, at this stage, with the reeearch at hand and the anecdotal evidence I’m hearing from parents, educators and health professionals, is that social media and smartphone use (in fact, digital platforms and devices) have an ‘opportunity cost’. It’s the displacement effect which may explain why we’re seeing a concerning increase in rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders amongst young people. Our basic psychological and physical needs are being shaped and superseded by technology, You can read more here about my thoughts on this issue. At this stage, however, I think it’s premature and alarmist to present a very simplistic narrative that suggests that social media is the root cause of poor mental health outcomes. We need more nuanced conversations that also acknowledge broader social issues and address the complexities around social media use.

// The word ‘addiction’ was over-used– whilst I know many people colloquially suggest that they, or in fact their kids or teens, are ‘addicted’ to technology, I have concerns that we use this word too liberally. We don’t yet have consistent medical diagnostic criteria. The frequent use of this word only added to the sense of hysteria, panic and angst.

// Lopsided view- whilst I am sure there are a host of legal reasons why the social media companies didn’t partake in the documentary (and I’m not certain that they were even invited to contribute), hearing counter arguments, or perspectives from insiders (not just disgruntled former tech-executives who made their money in Silicon Valley, departed and had an attack of their moral conscience) was lacking. Presenting one perspective on a topic and using emotive techniques, like dramatisation to persuade viewers, provided a one-sided view.

// Questionable timing of release– the documentary stirs concern and raises anxiety, as evidenced by the outpouring of commentary about the documentary in traditional media and on social media. This has been done, during a time in history, when there’s already much social upheaval and angst. I am skeptical about the intentional timing of the documentary’s release date, where there’s global unrest and during a time in history where we’ve never used or relied on technology as much as did during the pandemic, particularly social media and news sites.

// Delivered on one of the most addictive platforms… Netflix- In 2017 it was reported that Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, claimed that the streaming giant’s biggest rivals weren’t Amazon, YouTube or even traditional broadcasters, but instead our need for sleep was actually its main barrier to market penetration. Netflix, like most streaming and video services use recommendation algorithms to carefully select episodes or movies that would be exactly what you’re interested interviewing (and therefore stay longer on the platform) and have the auto-play feature as the default setting, making it difficult to stop watching (I refer to this as the ‘state of insufficiency’ and it’s why so many of us find the online world so captivating and appealing because it’s like a bottomless bowl).

// Persuasive use of drama elements that made the content compelling and terrifying– the drama component of the documentary, from the fictional characters in the social media company, to the musical underscore ratcheted up the tension. These techniques are a form of psychological manipulation, which is exactly one of the issues that the documentary tried to raise and criticise. Humans tend to have a negativity bias and triggering negative emotions, as the documentary did, is a very powerful persuasion technique.

In summary, I’m pleased that this documentary-drama has been a catalyst for some good conversation- I’ve certainly had lots to share at the park in recent weeks and at dinner parties. However, I’m disappointed that it presented such a narrow perspective and failed to offer solutions.

The reality is, technology and social media is here to stay. Love it or loathe it, it’s imperative that we find healthy and helpful ways to leverage the benefits it offers us, whilst also mitigating the pitfalls and perils it also poses. That’s why I’ll be delivering two parent webinars in coming weeks to help parents of children and teens

 

                           

 

 

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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