Catrina Yang Farrell
October 20, 2020

The Social Dilemma, COVID-19, and the State of Social Media Today

Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma has taken the world by storm with its chilling presentation of our technological reality. In this blog post, MEDIAGIRLS Editorial Intern Catrina Yang Farrell highlights the main takeaways of the documentary, all the more pressing taken in the context of COVID-19, and comes up with some ways to regain control over your online presence.

According to the data presented in The New York Times article, The Virus Changed the Way We Internet, traffic on social media platforms and media sites have gone up by as much as 30 percent since the beginning of the pandemic in mid-March. At the same time, streaming video games on Twitch have increased by 20 percent and Netflix usage has increased 16 percent. It’s clear that we are spending more time online than ever before. Further research from DATAREPORTAL shows that global internet traffic has grown by as much as 30 percent this year and research from GlobalWebIndex reveals that we’re still spending considerably more time using connected tech than we were at the start of 2020.

Graphs from The New York Times articleThe Virus Changed the Way We Internet.

Why do these statistics matter? What are the costs of spending so much time online?

The new documentary The Social Dilemma, by Jeff Orlowski—released on Netflix in early September—discusses the detrimental impacts of technology and social media platforms. As COVID-19 has continued to spread and we find ourselves online more than ever before, the alarms that The Social Dilemma raises ring louder than ever.

In The Social Dilemma, tech experts from various companies explain how social networking platforms’ profligacy and addictiveness are intentional features. Human behavior is manipulated and turned into profit by enticing individuals to scroll, use notifications, and read comments infinitely to maintain constant engagement. Social media platforms utilized our data, likes, and dislikes to create, predict, and influence our actions through personalized recommendations. 

To get the messages across, Orlowski incorporates snippets of interviews with various men and women who helped develop social media as we know it who now have concerns about the effects their creations have on individuals and democracies around the world. In between interviews, Orlowski breaks away to show snippets of the life of a fictional suburban family. This family embodies potential consequences of social-media addiction, not only for individual family members but for the family as a whole. In the scenes, there are silent family dinners, images of the youngest child (played by Sophia Hammons) struggling with self-image issues and the middle child, a teenage boy (played by Skyler Gisondo) who becomes radicalized by watching YouTube’s recommended videos. The struggles that social media induces in this family highlight systemic problems with social media as a whole.

 

Here are the major takeaways of the film: 

  • Social media platforms are algorithms that are designed to capture and maintain our attention. As a result, social media addiction is not a negative consequence of social networking, but rather, it is an intentional outcome.
  • Algorithms, not you, choose what you see on social media. Platforms choose what you see (and what you don’t see) based on your data history.
  • Fake news spreads six times faster than the truth. Thus, social media can easily become a breeding ground for conspiracies and lies.
  • Ultimately, users, not the app, are the product. With each link you click and post you like, you provide information to tech companies where the data is analyzed and then sold to be used by advertisers to entice you to buy their products or buy into their ideas.

 

Here are some suggestions to regain control:

  • Uninstall or delete applications that waste your time. Addiction is a design feature of social media, not a flaw. So, if you find that apps like Instagram or Facebook are taking up all of your time, uninstall them and reclaim that time. If uninstalling your applications is too dramatic a step…
  • Turn off all notifications for apps that demand attention, such as social media or news apps. Notifications are designed to bring your attention back to an app when you are away from it. Turning off notifications can help break the cycle of constant distraction.
  • Use a search engine like Qwant. Qwant is a research engine that doesn’t store your search history and, as a result, can provide more unbiased search results than Google.
  • Before you share, fact check. If you’re watching or reading information that you find interesting, appalling, or infuriating make sure that it is from a reputable source or, if not, make sure to fact check. Ask yourself if who else has mentioned this information, where it has been mentioned, and where the information is coming from to help determine its efficacy.
  • Follow people with different viewpoints. In a world where false information spreads six times faster than true information, it’s important to expand the kinds of information you receive. Reporters can have different views from academics who can have different views from social commentators. Mixing up who you follow will allow you to be less likely to fall prey to fake news.
  • Ultimately, the most effective way to take control of your data is to delete social media altogether. Sometimes you just need a break! So don’t be afraid to turn off your social media or even delete it altogether. It isn’t going anywhere so what’s the harm from taking a step back?

 

Parents, here are some suggested rules to help kids regulate how much time they spend on social media:

  • No devices in the bedroom after a fixed time. With phones and social media designed to keep us on our screens, having a phone or laptop in the bedroom can lead to sleep loss. Remove the temptation altogether by getting devices out of the bedroom after a certain time!
  • Kids shouldn’t have social media until an agreed-upon age. Social media can be harmful if it is introduced at a young age, especially for girls and young women. For more advice on this, read our blog post: What is the right age for girls to get their own social media accounts?
  • Work out a schedule for when kids can or should use technology and social media platforms. A schedule can allow kids to realize that having fun does not always involve a screen, that social media isn’t everything, and that not everything revolves around what happens online. There is a whole world outside waiting, explore it!

Catrina Yang Farrell is from Taipei, Taiwan. She is currently pursuing a BA in English Literature with a focus on minority experiences at Simmons University. She hopes to use literature to instigate discussions with others on those oppressed’ history and narratives.