I know that I am supposed to have cancelled my Netflix subscription because of their release of the French film, which ostensibly seeks to critique the sexualizing of children, which nevertheless, according to critics, sexualizes them. I was also supposed to boycott Disney. Mea culpa. Because we did not cancel our subscription we were able to watch the new documentary, The Social Dilemma (94 min. 2020).

Overview

The documentary features an illuminating series of interviews with some of the founders of the various social media empires, which now exercise so much influence over our life. The documentary gave the impression that most of them are no longer working for the various social media companies. Social media is a way of referring to companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google (and YouTube), and to websites (and apps) such as Instagram (a subsidiary of Facebook). The film also features interspersed dramatic scenes illustrating the effect of social media on interpersonal (e.g., family) relationships and upon a young man in particular. This aspect of the film is sometimes interesting and telling (e.g., the scene in which Mom puts everyone’s phone is a timed lockbox and the family begins to go through withdrawal). Some viewers may find some sequences a bit overwrought.

The Point

The great point of the documentary is to warn us about the nature and effect of social media. In short: all social media is a very sophisticated, highly addictive, Narcissistic commercial. It is the psychological, emotional, and intellectual equivalent of a sugary breakfast cereal or worse, crack cocaine or meth. These pioneers in social media, who helped to design it and to make it hugely profitable, have walked away and are now warning the rest of us about the dangers of social media. Several of those interviewed remind us that there is no free lunch. The Facebook and Twitter apps are ostensibly free but they come at a hidden cost. It is not so much that Big Social Media (hereafter BigSocMedia) is harvesting your personal information but rather, they argue, that BigSocMedia is engaged in the biggest data collection operation in human history in order to feed and perfect their algorithms. The goal of these algorithms (artificial intelligence) is to keep our eyes on social media, to increase our screen time. We keep giving them information about ourselves, where we go, what we do, what we buy, with whom we talk, where we are at any given moment, who is nearby etc. ad infin., which they, in turn, feed to the algorithm. As the algorithm becomes more tailored to each individual user, it is as if we each have our personal cocaine dealer, who has perfected a personalized brand of cocaine for each of us composed of news (that fits our biases), videos, stories, etc al of which is designed to keep us watching. As we do, they sell us, the viewer, the user to the advertiser.

They have designed the algorithms to appeal to our basest instincts, e.g., lust, greed, envy, tribalism, fear, outrage, and sentiment to name just a few. If you think back over what you see in your Facebook feed, it is as if the old supermarket tabloids have taken over the world—in a sense they have. To be sure, mass media has always sought to manipulate our emotions and to get us to do something, e.g., look at an advertisement and possibly even to buy a product. In radio we programmed each segment of an hour in a particular way with content designed to get the listener to do what we wanted, to continue listening or to tune back in at a certain time. Mass media is a series of commercials interrupted by some music or talk. Never before, however, have media companies and advertisers had the power to create an addiction to a medium. Now they have that power. They have learned how to stimulate the release of powerful chemicals in the brain so that, like drug addicts, we crave the next hit.

The Social Cost

This is not healthy for individuals or a society. There is a correlation between the rise of social media (which is used pervasively by pre-teens and teens) and a sharp rise in the number of suicides. Correlation is not causation. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the effect (and affect) that BigSocMedia has on young people. They know that teens are an affluent market and they know how to manipulate the feelings (hence affect) of teens. Jean Twenge, perhaps the leading sociologist of Millennials and Zoomers (the generation following the Millennials) is concerned.

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

Young people’s self-image is fluid and fragile. Add to that the pressure to create and maintain an image, a “brand,” on social media. Do you remember how much it hurt when someone you admired made a careless remark, perhaps even in passing, during high school. Imagine if that happened “in public,” as it were, on BigSocMedia, potentially in front of 1,000 people. BigSocMedia, is, in that regard like a never-ending talent show, a Gong Show, of sorts, where one’s SocMedia contacts are the jury. One’s every move is on video or photo and one is constantly being judged.

The documentary also notes the correlation between the deepening political and cultural divide and the rise of BigSocMedia. People now speak openly about “your facts” and “my facts” as if such language reflects reality. Of course it does not. There is not “your law of gravity” and “my law of gravity.” Yet, inasmuch as reality is being mediated to us by BigSocMedia people can be led to believe that what they see in their curated feed, picked by the algorithm  is all there is to know. We regularly confuse our BigSocMedia feed for objective reality when that feed is more like LSD than reality.

Responses

  1. If putting your phone away makes you anxious, you are an addict. Admitting your addiction is the first step to recovery.
  2. BigSocMedia is not your friend. They are intentionally manipulating you, changing your behavior and your perception of the world in order to profit from the time you spend looking at BigSocMedia.
  3. When you contribute to a BigSocMedia site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), you are creating content for them to use to draw other viewers. If you use BigSocMedia know that they are using you.
  4. Young people especially should be kept away from BigSocMedia. It is almost certainly unhealthy for their psychological, emotional, and spiritual development.
  5. If you use BigSocMedia set a limit and keep to it, 10 minutes a day on BigSocMedia. When time is up, walk away. If you cannot walk away see #1 above.

In light of these realities I intend to make some significant changes to my social media patterns. As much as I enjoy the videos of Scottish Terriers and Westies on Instagram and the witty repartee on Twitter (and sometimes it is hilarious), it is probably time for me to take my own medicine. The HB will continue apace but I intend to stick to #5 above.

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Dr. R. Scott Clark is professor of historical theology at Westminster Seminary California and blogs at THE HEIDELBLOG.