A Social Dilemma, Indeed

Anyone who has driven from the Midwest out to Denver, Colorado, has experienced the steady, yet imperceptible, increase in altitude that carries travelers from the sea-level towns of the Great Plains up to the Mile High City. We catapult a full mile into the sky without even realizing it. Hardly a life changing event, but enough to prompt someone to say “Huh, that’s kinda cool I guess”.

A popular documentary on Netflix called The Social Dilemma lays bare another steady, yet imperceptible change, but this change is far less trivial than a cross-country drive. Quite the contrary, as many of viewers finished the film with a sense of abject horror and have been contemplating their relationship with social media ever since.

Those of us who hold an online presence through Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or whatever kids are using these days, have experienced something that is nearly impossible to overstate. Our brains have been rewired, along with our relationships with technology, friends, family, and our communities. We reflexively – without thinking even a little – reach for our devices the same way a gambling addict grabs the slot machine arm for just one more spin. As the film succinctly puts it, “There are only two industries that refer to their customers as ‘users’: illegal drugs and software. “

The documentary’s carefully constructed narrative, bolstered by insider interviews and dramatizations, shows us how tech companies engineer the behaviors they want by tapping into our human frailties, and then squeeze out every last penny of the so-called ‘attention economy.’ 

You’re not alone if this documentary hit home with you in a very personal and uncomfortable way. However corny the dramatizations may be, any eye rolls are stifled by the fact that it’s no stretch at all to see ourselves and our loved ones in these characters. The painfully silent family meal where no one knows how to meaningfully connect with each other. The high school boy who is  manipulated into picking up his phone by ex-girlfriend updates and later radicalized by misinformation. The young girl who cannot go one moment without checking her phone and loses all self-esteem after receiving one cruel, faceless comment on her photoshopped selfie.

It’s not at all surprising that depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation and self-harm are at an all-time high. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, PhD, points out that since the introduction of social media on mobile devices in 2010, self-harm has gone up 62% in older teen girls (age 15-19) and 189% pre-teen (age 10-14) girls. Furthermore, suicide rates in older teen girls is up 70% and pre-teens is 151%. Per Dr. Haidt, “…that pattern points to social media.” He asserts that a whole generation (Gen Z) is more anxious, more fragile and more depressed. 

So where do we go from here? Is there hope? Industry insiders suggest that there is cause for optimism: we as a society have the power to change the course of social media creep by withholding our attention. The challenge is on us – we have to relearn to be intentional with how we use our time.

How do we do this? Do we deactivate or delete our social media accounts altogether? Do we advocate for government regulations to keep tech companies accountable? Do we set limits on our screen time? 

Those questions become even more complicated for parents of Gen Z kids. One of the books referenced in the documentary is Bill Ratner’s, “Parenting for the Digital Age.” He offers many suggestions on teaching children to regulate their time online, including establishing a screen time budget. Most importantly, Ratner advocates for having ongoing conversations with your children about social media. The shallow connections of social media are no match for the bond between parent and child.

Perhaps after reading this you feel more conflicted than ever and are unsure of how to move forward with social media habits. If you need someone to talk to about parenting in the age of social media or you’ve been personally affected by depression, anxiety or low self-esteem related to social media, set up an appointment at Counseling Works. Together we can work to unpack these challenges and determine a plan to move forward.

Written By: Julie Peterson, LCSW

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