During the first half of this summer’s isolation, I deleted Instagram and Snapchat. Initially, it was a temporary experiment that I deemed necessary because I was wasting full days consumed on my phone with the seemingly never-ending excuse of ‘there’s nothing better to do.’ My findings: I didn’t miss them at all. In the months following, I deleted the rest of the social media apps off of my phone. After watching The Social Dilemma, I’ll probably never redownload them. 

Our society’s consumption of social media has turned into a horror story. It has become such a fundamental part of our society, especially for the generation that operated as the guinea pigs during the development of many of these platforms. We got addicted quickly and continue to do so, despite being somewhat aware of the dangers, as it brings short term pleasure that seems to override the devastating consequences that manifest in the real world. This documentary, which is mainly interviews with a fictional storyline on the side to exemplify these effects in our everyday lives, attempts to get to the bottom of the issue so that we can ask ourselves: where do we go from here? 

The reason The Social Dilemma had such a large impact for me is because knowing that social media is harmful in an abstract sense is so vastly different than seeing exactly how it manipulates you and how these impacts leave the screen, leading to real-world violence, chaos, and devastation. One of the key warning signs in the documentary is that these same people who they interview – Tristan Harris, Jaron Lanier, Tim Kendall, Shoshana Zuboff, Jeff Seibert, etc. – are the people who helped build these programs into what they are today. After working inside of the tech industry at companies like Instagram, Google, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. they saw first-hand just how unethical and disastrous it was, and left. Now they work to reform and expose these issues because they see the direction our society is going in, and are terrified. 

“Advertisers are the customers. We’re the thing being sold.” – Aza Raskin

When it comes to these social media companies that are making money through advertisements, it’s important to understand that humans are the product and we are being exploited for profit. While many people are concerned about companies selling their data, the real concern is how they are using your data to understand more about you, your personality, behaviors, and beliefs. This allows the algorithms behind these apps to predict your behavior, and then manipulate it however they desire, which is, of course, in whatever way that will make them the most money. 

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I think it would be very difficult for any of us to find someone in our lives who isn’t addicted to social media. They are designed that way, and it’s practically impossible to just stop by sheer will. Before deleting the social media apps, it was muscle memory for me to open my phone and immediately go to Instagram or Snapchat even when I wasn’t consciously thinking about it. How many times have you closed an app and immediately reopened it without thinking? How often do you instantly grab your phone when you have even one free moment? 

“We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves.” – Tristan Harris

My phone has become an emotional clutch. Even without any interesting apps, if I ever feel awkward, bored, upset, or uncomfortable it’s the first thing I reach for. For many of us, that means we haven’t learned healthy ways to confront these feelings. Our anxieties don’t disappear when we are concentrating on our screen instead; it’s as good as slapping a bandaid over a gunshot wound. 

The documentary goes into specific detail about how it’s not just preventing us from adopting healthy ways of dealing with our problems; it also significantly worsens them. Harris says: “A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed.” And there is evidence to back this up. The rise in self-harm and suicide rates, especially for young girls, has risen with the rise of social media to truly devastating levels. These aren’t just abstract numbers; they are people that you know, and these things are affecting you. We’ve learned to value ourselves based on the reception we get from people we likely don’t know or care about, through likes or comments. Meanwhile, the amount we are interacting with the real world in truly valuable ways goes down every second we spend staring at our screens. 

In the beginning, as the app developers in the documentary explain, the intentions were good. These programs were meant to be positive and joyous, and yet they spiraled so far away from those initial motives. Look at where we are now: a country so deeply polarized and worsening by the second, a world where fake news spreads faster than the truth. The reality is that people are dying. This might seem highly dramatic, but watch the documentary and it will become clear how precarious of a situation we are in. The point is not to give up and watch as the chaos ensues; the documentary is not trying to be pessimistic. It’s a call for reform, for change, for a world where social media can’t just be weaponized by any person with very real and devastating consequences. 

Feature Image Credit: CinemanBlend

Renee Bunszel

About Renee Bunszel

Renee Bunszel is a sophomore from the Bay Area, and an English major and SLAMM minor. Renee loves reading, writing, and eating all the delicious food in New Orleans!