The Social Dilemma, a new documentary on NetFlix, is an invitation to a conversation about the impact of social media on us as individuals and as a society.
The documentary interviews several high-profile members of Silicon Valley tech companies including Facebook, Google and YouTube. Whilst acknowledging the very real benefits of social media, especially amongst the coronavirus pandemic, these professionals sound a warning about social media. They describe how it has been monetised and the impact of that monetisation on the people who use it. The documentary and its supporting website www.thesocialdelimma.com highlight three concerns about social media:
- Its impact on the mental health of users,
- The consequences for our political system, and
- Its role in propagating extremist views.
The piece of this I see most often is the impact of social media on mental health. There are two conversations I often have with people about social media and mental health.
The first revolves around our tendency to compare ourselves to others and seek the approval of others. This tendency has been “hard wired” into us over millennia. As humans, we evolved in relatively small social groups and were inter-dependent on others for our survival. In this context, whether others approve of us or not was a matter of survival. If others didn’t like us, we risked being alienated from the group. In the current context, social media opens us up for comparisons and approval (or not) from potentially thousands of people, all at once and in a very “all or nothing” kind of way: Just how many “likes” did my last post get? This can lead to an overload of feedback and overwhelming emotions.
The second conversation centres on the amount of time people spend on social media and its role in procrastination. The documentary makes it very clear that the aim of social media companies is to keep you engaged on their site. These companies use psychological concepts and tools such as intermittent positive reinforcement. One of the most poignant moments in the documentary for me came when one of the interviewees described being “hooked into” his company’s site. Even while knowing all the techniques being used to keep him there. Even while his kids were present, wanting to spend time with their Dad.
In my clinical practice, these conversations usually lead to using mindfulness techniques to “unhook” from social media sites. You can do this by bringing a mindful awareness to where your attention is, connecting with what is important to you in that moment, and stepping back from the social media site and / or the thoughts that are triggered as necessary. We can also practice a compassionate response to the very understandable difficulties we have when using these sites.
The documentary is a call to begin talking about these issues and searching for solutions. The producers call for more regulation of these social media companies. The Social Dilemma website includes of “Code of Ethics” which they promise to follow. For my part, I believe we need to become much more “savvy” about how we interact with these sites. Yes, the tech companies have a responsibility to look at their decisions and the consequences thereof. There is also responsibility on behalf of the user to do likewise. The documentary ends with a series of tips on how to reduce or cease your use of these sites. We can also do this by bringing mindful awareness to our use of them.
Please watch the documentary, visit the website and join the conversation.