The Social Dilemma: An Exposé of Social Media

A Netflix Original released on January 26, The Social Dilemma mixes documentary investigation and narrative drama to spread a vital message about the manipulative nature of social media and its far reaching consequences.

A Netflix Original released on January 26, The Social Dilemma mixes documentary investigation and narrative drama to spread a vital message about the manipulative nature of social media and its far reaching consequences. In its investigative segments, the documentary's esteemed director, Jeff Orlowski, speaks with some of the men and women who were at the forefront of the social media boom but now fear the detrimental effects of their creations on both mental health and the very fabric of American democracy. In the film, Orlowski demonstrates these effects through the hypothetical story of a family whose teenage children struggle with social media addiction.

While most users are already aware of social media's addictive qualities, the highly educated interviewees, my favorite of whom was Tristan Harris, an ex-Google employee, bring the nuanced issues to light in a new and riveting way. It is Harris who delivers one of the most terrifying revelations of the documentary: "If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product."

The documentary claims that we, the users, are the "products" of a system that manipulates us to spend more time on its various applications and services. Each app tracks individual behaviors and tailors its content to the data they collect. They modulate content send us incessant alerts and use "tag" and "like" buttons to keep us engaged. The collection of user information facilitates development in the social media market. By using the Internet, we are actually selling ourselves.

Sadly, it is these alerts and recognitions that deteriorate the mental health of users. Social media draws on our biological desire to seek the approval of our peers. According to former Facebook Vice President of Growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, "We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals—hearts, likes, thumbs ups—and we conflate that with value." However, once this brief validation stops flowing in, we are left feeling more empty than before. The mental health effects of this phenomenon are statistically obvious: Since 2010, the number of teenage girls who commit suicide every year has risen by 70 percent for girls aged 15 through 19 and by 151 percent for preteen girls. In the narrative segment of the documentary, we see these facts are reflected in the family's young daughter who struggles with self-esteem issues as she navigates the cruel world of an Instagram equivalent.

Furthermore, the increasing lack of unbiased information in the online world is greatly polarizing our country politically. Computer algorithms are designed to appeal to the user. To help viewers grasp the complexity of these algorithms, the director personifies the system of a mobile phone as three men whose goal is to make a profit and keep the family's teenage son engaged. They discuss what clickbait methods to lure him with and what advertisements will evoke the best response. They show him only what he wants to see. In doing so, the computer greatly alters the son's political views as it encourages him to only view the situation from one perspective.

Even Google, a seemingly uninfluenced search engine, uses similar algorithms. If I, a Democratic girl from New Jersey who has shown interest in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as a source for positive social change, google "BLM," I am shown articles describing peaceful protests and the need for societal change; these are my truths. However, if someone from a predominantly Republican state googles the same acronym, they might find articles describing violent riots and looting; these become their truths. In a society where we are only shown the realities that we want to see, we are becoming more and more polarized in every respect.

Our world is facing a crisis that, in truth, no one really knows how to combat. I am sure that Lawrenceville's administration knows about student complaints about study hall. Who wants to give their phone up for two hours a day and be forced to do work devoid of social connection? I used to be one of these students, facetiously arguing that I might need to make a phone call to a parent or that I had already completed my work for the evening. However, I am proud to report that since watching The Social Dilemma, I have deleted Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook, and am now an avid believer in study hall's importance as a combatant.

If you were so addicted to a drug that you could not go two hours a day without it, you’d be in big trouble. As a society, we need to think of social media as a drug which endangers our wellbeing. To confront our addiction, we must begin by increasing awareness. The Social Dilemma exposed me to the manipulative nature of the tech industry, and its depiction of social media addiction as a global issue with serious ramifications makes it a definite must-watch.


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