Review by Carrie Camp October 5, 2020
The Social Dilemma (Documentary Review)
A Disturbing Look at the Dangers of Social Media and Big Tech
About the Film
“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,” Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist, states near the beginning of the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.
Through a combination of dramatic portrayals and interviews with former (and current) tech executives, the film offers an almost apocalyptic warning to viewers: social media is a formidable and dangerous force that has the potential to destroy society if it’s left unregulated and unchecked. It raises some questions well worth pondering on both a global and personal level. What kind of influence am I allowing social media to have in my life? And, more importantly, what am I going to do about it?
On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).
Profanity: The “S” word is used a few times.
Sexuality: None (other than one brief innuendo).
Violence: A few scenes depict violence and civil unrest.
Beneath the Surface— (Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)
Social media was carefully designed to addict you. If you’ve ever experienced sheer panic after misplacing your phone or feel that almost uncontrollable impulse to check the screen every time it vibrates, you know our relationship to our phones is far from casual. For many people, it’s an outright addiction. Dr. Anna Lembke, Medical Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford, doesn’t mince her words on the topic: “Social media is a drug.” The experts interviewed in the film warn that its addictive power is intentional: social media algorithms were carefully designed to tap into humanity’s deepest psychological cravings in order to keep us coming back for more.
Social media is particularly dangerous for young people. The film notes some terrifying statistics: in recent years, hospital admissions for non-fatal self-harm has increased by 62% for older teen girls and by a shocking 189% for preteen girls. Suicide rates among teen girls has also spiked. These upward trends, as well as increased cases of anxiety and depression, are thought to be a result, at least in part, of the constant social pressures, harassment, and unrealistic expectations young people encounter online.
The film doesn’t even address some of the most nefarious dangers lurking on social media, such as pornography and access to online sexual predators.
While banning social media might seem extreme (though in some cases, a moratorium may not be a bad idea!), the information presented in this film should at minimum give parents pause to consider how much access to social media they should allow.
Social media causes division. According to the film, “fake news” spreads 6 times faster online than truth. Of course, anyone who has spent more than five minutes on Facebook knows the Internet is not exactly a failproof repository of truth. Rather, social media and search engine algorithms are designed to maintain your attention by showing you posts or articles with which you are most likely to engage (even if they are wildly incorrect or biased). In the film, tech experts point to these algorithms as playing a role in the division we are seeing in society today. Harris notes, “If we can’t agree on what’s true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.” Obviously, digging too deeply into this topic can get into some highly controversial waters. But you don’t have to be a tech industry expert to notice that the world—both real and virtual—is volatile and divided. And trending Twitter hashtags aren’t likely to de-escalate things any time soon.
There is plenty to nitpick about this film. Aside from the irony that it was produced by Netflix, the very type of company it criticizes (though the streaming service is conspicuously never mentioned), it also tends toward scare tactics and extremes, especially in the fictional dramatizations. There is also little time spent offering viable solutions to the problems it describes (most of the actionable tips don’t come until the final credits).
But, as a whole, The Social Dilemma should make all of us stop and take inventory of the power we are giving our phones, one tweet or Facebook like at a time.