The new Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” is taking the world by storm. It tackles the modern challenges of social media, and explains how tech companies use our attention for commercial gain. But it also exposes some darker truths about how it’s affecting societal norms and our overall mental health.
The show tells the story of human nature. It tells us about how humans are hard-wired for suffering, we compare ourselves to others, we prefer the comfort of people who agree with our beliefs as opposed to having to think about different perspectives and we love the easy way out. And social media is capitalizing on it.
When I watched it I felt a mixture of horror and sadness at how we’ve allowed these tools to alter our lives so deeply. I am an avid user of social media; since the lockdown I’ve grown more attached to my apps and have used them to feel a form of connection with the world.
More recently I notice how addicted I’ve become, there are times I get lost in rabbit holes 10 profiles deep and then realise I’d wasted 2 hours of mindless scrolling. I notice how I sometimes compare my page to others’ and spiral into darker thoughts and then I force myself to snap out of it and remember that we all have our journeys. This documentary made me think of the impact this has on society; some scenarios terrified me, and have highlighted the critical need for mental health education to manage the repercussions.
The Darker Sides of Human Nature
Very early in our lives, we learn about ‘otherness’, we learn how others can be better than us and sometimes worse than us. We compete with our siblings for our parents’ attention, and when we don’t get their care, we believe that there’s something about us that makes us unlovable. At a young age, when we are deeply impressionable, it scars us and we feel unworthy of their love. This is how we learn to compare ourselves, we quickly understand that we can get their attention by changing our appearance or our emotional state so they can give us more of it, which ultimately translates to love.
The attention we compete for on social media is exactly a replication of these childhood scenarios in our adulthood. We carry these beliefs with us into our grown lives and we associate likes and followers with the same attention we sought when we were young. We fiercely chase it to feel worthy. If this childhood riddle isn’t solved and healed, we will continue to pursue these tools to tame our needy inclinations for attention.
For this reason, when teenagers start to compare themselves on social media to unrealistic images, their mental health spirals out of control into eating disorders, self harm and emotional issues. In essence, they feel unworthy and are desperate to feel loved. The answer isn’t necessarily to deprive them of social media, but to equip our children with a much stronger mental health arsenal to fight the darker stories we learn to tell ourselves as toddlers as we feel unworthy.
“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
—Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Yale University
Our Selective Biases And The Distorted Reality of Feed Curation
We will always unconsciously prefer the comfort of consuming information that agrees with our own beliefs. We tend to quickly discount views that oppose ours and we stick to what we know. Unless we have this awareness, we will move through life always gravitating towards the people who agree with us. This is the whole principle of feed curation.
On most social media platforms, your newsfeed is curated. It is not a chronological order of all the posts from the people you follow, rather it’s a carefully selected series of posts from those you’ve most engaged with. This means your feed is only a small portion of your universe and it is reinforcing the reality you’ve been interacting with. These platforms also suggest posts from other accounts that are similar to those that you follow.
Social media isn’t helping us expand our horizons, it’s limiting us. Our realities are being distorted and we are seeing media that perpetuate what we want to see. In its extreme forms, it’s leading us to believe things that do not exist such as the Pizzagate conspiracy incident in the film.
It was about a man who was presented with viral posts of the conspiracy about a pizza restaurant in Washington DC running a pedophile ring in its basement. He got drawn into the story and it became everything he saw on his feeds. When he showed up barging into the restaurant armed with his firegun to free the trapped children in the basement, he got arrested and it had transpired that the Pizzagate story was fake.
This should serve to teach us that we must take everything on social media with a pinch of salt. We must make an effort to seek diverse views and opinions to avoid getting wrapped into groupthink and we must consume information from trusted sources and news outlets.
The Digital Pacifier
There was a segment in the documentary where the protagonist, Tristan Harris said “ we are training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when you are anxious or lonely or uncertain or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves, that is atrophying our own ability to self-soothe.” This made me realise how much I rely on social media to calm my anxieties. How tragic is it that the few skills we have at managing our uncomfortable emotions are slowly eroding because we have opted for easier tools that hook us and make us more wary.
Let’s be honest, it’s the easiest way to self-soothe. It’s much easier to fire up Instagram than to sit with the excruciating pain of loneliness, or having to call a friend to calm our anxieties or finding positive words to repeat to ourselves when we are worried. If I examine my habits, I notice how when I’m not busy working, I’m mostly on my phone. When I’m taking a break from work, I’m on my phone. When I’m worried about a conversation, I’m on my phone. When I’m bored, I’m on my phone. When I need inspiration, I’m on my phone.
I don’t give myself much time to source my self-soothing elsewhere. I’m now beginning to notice how much I’ve used social media as an escape, it’s a very strong urge. If we don’t pay attention to our behaviours and patterns, it’s easy to get sucked in. As it is with any addictive tool out there, its misuse can lead to disastrous consequences.
How Do We Coexist With Social Media?
How did we get here? How did we create these beasts that are controlling our lives, limiting our worldviews and are eroding our mental health skills? This is what happens when we let the vicious force of financial gain take over our darker sides. This is what happens when our nefarious impulses go unchecked, when we are high on likes and are sitting comfortably on our sofas reading articles that agree with our beliefs.
It’s fair to acknowledge that social media has been poorly designed to serve us, but it’s also just as fair to admit that it has only amplified our already existing darker tendencies. Just like with any other addictive substance, whether it’s drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, shopping or eating, it’s less about the substance, it’s more about how humans use it. It’s more about understanding the drivers for addiction than the substance itself. Addiction is almost always an issue with how we deal with our anxieties and self-soothing using the element of choice. Recent research has found that drug addicts have been successfully treated by helping them create meaningful human connections, making them feel like they matter, and developing their tools to cope with mental health issues.
As much as this documentary exposes the darker sides of tech companies, it’s also helping us better understand human nature so we can re-design the tools to better serve us. It all starts with awareness and becoming conscious of how we operate. We must start taking the issue of mental health seriously, as adults and parents, we must take the responsibility of learning healthy ways to cope with our anxieties and then teaching them to our children at home. We must learn how we contribute towards young people’s emotional struggles, so we can prevent them from seeking refuge in social media.
I am grateful for technology, for the people it has allowed me to reconnect with, for the communities of likeminded people it’s enabled me to build and for the bouts of motivation it has contributed in my life. But I’m growing more aware of how it can be misused and I notice how I can abuse it at the expense of my mental health.
Simple practical changes have helped me manage this more effectively, I’ve turned my notifications off, I’m limiting my screen time, I’m doing regular digital detox weekends and I avoid encouraging the algorithms by clicking on their suggested posts. If you haven’t watched the show, I highly recommend that you do. It’s a wake up call to some truths that we should start doing something about.
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