Beware the Rabbit Hole
I was recently chewing the fat with my neighbour when the topic turned to kids and screen time. She asked me if I’d seen the film The Social Dilemma? At that time I hadn’t, and when I asked her about it she responded, “I’m not going to tell you, just watch it.” I was curious, so I went home and indulged.
In a nutshell, the film investigates how the bigger social media companies operate; how they collect data from you every time you use their platforms, and how they tailor what you see by using complex algorithms. These algorithms in turn manipulate the user, guiding them to view content that benefits their advertisers.
This didn’t really shock me, but I was surprised by just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Tristan Harris, the main protagonist in the film and an ex-employee of Google, explains it best.
“Algorithms learn users’ emotional vulnerability from the data gathered and exploit those insecurities, while companies make a profit,” he explained.
Harris knew, like the rest of us, that these social media sites gathered data, but he was taken aback by the sheer scale of the data collection. It really is mind-boggling, and what’s even scarier is there are no humans involved in the process; it’s all done by computer.
Another main theme of the film is the impact of such data collection on us as users of social media. The algorithms have been able to learn what you like and don’t like, how much time you might spend on one post over another, which posts you unmute and which ones you don’t… the list goes on. By feeding you something you like, the more excited you get and the more dopamine gets released in the brain, and before you know it you’re addicted. Like any addiction, you need more and more of the stimulus to get the hit. Every time we get a ‘like’ or a thumbs up it makes us feel good and we start to crave. The more this happens, the more the craving becomes a ‘learned emotional response’ and in turn an addiction.
However, it’s the level of dependence on social media that concerns me the most. Kids born in the late ‘90s have probably been using smart phones or tablets since starting school, and those born after that would have been exposed to them from even earlier in life. Kids, as well as adults, are now relying on social media or some other app on their phone to get a positive hit, and once addicted it’s hard to dial it back. It’s a slippery slope.
One of the more powerful parts of the film is the scene where a family is trying to have dinner around the kitchen table. Every single person is sitting there on their phone and not engaging with anyone else. They had all turned into Zombies, with no communication or eye contact whatsoever. The lack of awareness that they were even on their phones probably hit me the hardest – they were totally oblivious.
So, “How do you wake up from the Matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix?” Well, if your world is what you get from your phone, how do you really know what is the truth? It’s a tough concept. If you are on your phone all the time, the edges between what is real and what is not can become blurred. This is why anxiety and depression can result, especially among the young if they spend too much time alone on their devices. As Neo discovered in The Matrix, the real world was very different from the computer generated one he was living in. Only in his quest to discover the truth did he discover this reality.
If you feel that your device is getting the better of you, or if you are unsure of the risks associated with too much use of social media, please seek professional help.