So, I literally just finished watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a film with some of the biggest names from social media stepping forward to share how social media is literally monetizing our attention. I’m not going to give you too many spoilers or fully recap the film here; I encourage you to watch it for yourself (yes, it’s good enough to be worth your time).
Now, most of you know me as a business therapist. Some of you also know that I actually am a licensed professional counselor. I went to school, got my master’s degree, and practiced with it. Working with clients who were going through trauma, I saw exactly how easily influenced the humxn mind can be. And, not to date myself, but that was back in the early 2000’s, before social media was really even a big thing. Today, we live in a largely digital world where social media has changed the game. It is the perfect environment for all kinds of digital influence, and not just the happy, optimistic kind.
You’ve probably heard before that kids are like sponges, soaking up everything around them. What happens when the things they soak up happen on social media platforms? In the film, a psychologist reviewed teen rates of depression. Amazingly, rates were pretty stable for a long time… until 2011. Then, from 2011 to 2013, those rates skyrocketed for teens and for pre-teens. For teens, there was roughly a 70% increase. For the pre-teens, the increase was over 150% just for that short time period.
Knowing my two girls will go through that age bracket in just a few years… knowing they will be exposed to the kind of content… knowing just how much of a negative impact that can have on their mental health is really scary.
But the scariest part of all is that the suicide rates match the depression rates.
And, as they pointed out in the movie, “The one thing that all of these kids had in common was access to mobile social media apps.”
A New Kind of Psychology
In The Social Dilemma, they interviewed some folks from the Stanford School of Persuasive Technology. That gave me a double-take. “Persuasive technology” sounds pretty manipulative, right? Like some kind of futuristic, super-intelligent AI. Except it’s not futuristic at all. Apparently we’re already there because Stanford has a whole school devoted to manipulative technology.
That’s not to say all technology is manipulative or that what they’re doing at Stanford isn’t worthwhile. But it does give you pause. While there’s certainly room for exploring user interfaces and design improvements to enhance our digital experiences, whether that’s banking on a mobile app, ordering groceries, or buying a car, how much is too much?
Sure, the convenience is great, but persuasive technology is essentially there to allow apps and companies to share your opinion from one place to another. And that’s a little much for me.
Social Media: A Digital Pacifier
Whether we’re five or fifty, there are some truths that stand up to time: When we’re upset or angry or frustrated or bored, we look for ways to distract and soothe ourselves, just like parents try to get their crying baby to settle down.
In the film, they state that social media is the equivalent of a digital pacifier for adults. If it’s there, and we know it distracts us from whatever unpleasant thing we don’t want to deal with (work problems, stress at home, existing in 2020, etc.), we’re likely to grab for it every time we don’t feel so great. And, the more we do it, the more automatic it becomes.
One of the guys in the movie said, “This is why I don’t carry cookies in my pocket.” Having easy access leads to bad habits. Eventually, we end up addicted.
Knowing how accessible your phone is, with all those colorful apps full of distractions, think about your relationship with your technology. Are you eating cookies all day? Sucking on that digital pacifier nonstop? Look on your phone and see how many times you’ve unlocked it today. How much time do you spend on certain apps? Do you think that’s healthy? Or are you maybe just a little bit addicted?
I talked about this in a video on my YouTube Channel. I shared how many times I was going to allow myself to unlock my phone in a day, how many minutes I was going to spend on particular apps, and how I was going to limit my phone time as part of improving my own digital well-being. It started as an experiment, but now, anytime past 10 PM, my phone still goes to grayscale. It also never gets charged in the bedroom, only the kitchen. My experiment has become my way of life.
Taking these steps may sound drastic to you, but it’s made a big difference for me. They’re also the same kinds of suggestions made in the movie (yes, I gave myself a pat on the back for getting it right!).
Still not totally with me that technology is something we need to be careful with, something we should monitor? Here’s a little perspective from the movie:
“There are only two industries that refer to their customers as users: the illegal drugs industry, and the software industry.”
Uninstalling Social Addiction
Right after the film, here’s exactly what I did. I went into my apps on my phone. I scrolled over to my Facebook app. I highlighted it, then I pushed “uninstall.”
As if to suggest I’d made a mistake, my phone asked me, “Are you sure you want to uninstall Facebook?” I said, “Yes.”
I thought we were done at that point, but in one final, valiant attempt to get me to keep Facebook on my phone, it even popped up a reminder after the fact telling me I’d uninstalled the app (I guess in case I’d somehow accidentally jumped through all those hoops only to realize, oops, no, I really need it after all…).
All that to get a silly little app off my phone. One that I don’t even need. And I don’t say that just because I can access it through my computer.
The truth is, I really don’t need Facebook at all. I’ve run and grown multiple companies and sold multiple companies. And yes, those companies had and still have Facebook accounts, but that doesn’t mean I have to make my business’ social platforms my life. There are people who specialize in that and do it way better than I do, anyways.
Did I have some lofty realization about my own social media addiction because of this film? No, though I could see it having that effect on some people. I already knew I didn’t really need that digital pacifier. However, watching The Social Dilemma inspired me to take an action towards breaking a habit that wasn’t serving me.
And really, when we’re looking at work-life alignment, that’s what it’s all about: Cultivating more habits that serve us, and retraining ourselves to let go of habits that don’t.
We Can Fight Back
As somewhat of a crunchy granola human in the aspect that I am a vegetarian or a pescatarian, and I try to use recyclable goods and all of these kind of things, one of the things the film brought up that really shocked me was the idea that “Today we’re living in a world where a tree is worth more dead than it is alive, where a whale is worth more dead than it is alive. And where a human being’s attention span is worth more to a corporation watching an app and seeing ads than it is actually living their life.”
Quite frankly, that’s not the kind of world I want to live in. Looking at it like that, it feels a little like businesses and corporations who use advertising techniques to steal our attention want to keep us from fulfilling our purpose. Their “persuasive” tactics distract us from our true value, taking us down unnecessary rabbit holes.
The good news is entrepreneurs and individuals are fighting back against the onslaught of advertising. We’re calling for better regulations around advertising in spaces built for connection and conversation, joining our voices to ensure we’re heard, and holding fast to our values. We’re fighting back with digital well-being, unplugged destination vacations, and intentional uninstalls of “helpful” and apps that serve themselves more than they serve us. We’re pursuing our passions, and we’re committed to achieving our goals.
We’ll get there with or without the help of social platforms.