What to Know About The Social Dilemma

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Criticism of social media isn’t new, and it’s often warranted. 

For example, social media has been linked to self-esteem issues, cyberbullying, and car accidents. 

Distracted driving is one of the primary causes of car accidents, and yet people continue to use their phones to scroll social media when they’re behind the wheel. We’re learning that the compulsion to scroll social media, even in dangerous situations could highlight the deeper issues of these platforms. 

The distractions of social media sites extend to work and relationships. It’s hard for most of us to be present when there’s the constant pull of social media at our fingertips. 

The Social Dilemma is a buzzy new Netflix movie exploring the topic and opening up many people’s eyes to the difficult truths regarding social media. So what should you know if you haven’t watched it yet?

The Basics

The Social Dilemma is a documentary from Jeff Orlowski, which looks at how things like addiction to Facebook and Instagram aren’t accidental and are rather part of the design on the part of tech companies. The documentary deep-dives into the fact that social media companies are manipulating and exploiting human behavior for profit. 

For example, those push notifications you receive are a way to keep you constantly tethered to your social media. Personalized recommendations are not just using your currently available data but are influencing your every action. 

Through the course of the film, Orlowski speaks with the people who built social media and now are worried that they’ve created a monster in terms of democracy, mental health, and more. 

According to Anna Lembke, who is a Stanford University addiction specialist, social media companies rely on the evolutionary need of the brain to have a sense of connection. 

Interestingly, the documentary combines interviews with fictional scenes of a suburban family dealing with the ramifications of an addiction to social media. 

The documentary looks at former decision-makers in the tech industry dealing with the business models that have led to their power and influence, but perhaps many negative outcomes. 

The ability of social media to play into human psychology and drive behaviors is why these companies have become so staggeringly rich. 

Most of us at the individual level are entirely unaware of how social media is affecting us, and that’s by design. 

The Effects of Social Media on Your Brain

It sounds dramatic, but we are increasingly seeing that social media is turning us into addicts. Social media platforms target the same brain circuits as drugs and gambling. 

For example, consider how you feel if you realize you don’t have your phone with you at any given moment in your day. You may feel panic because if you don’t have your phone you can feel incomplete. We’re entirely reliant on our phones, which is why we find ourselves using them even when we shouldn’t, like when we’re behind the wheel. 

Smartphones themselves aren’t necessarily addictive—it’s what on them. 

Social media lets you carry your social life in your pocket. There are, unfortunately, links between smartphone use and anxiety and depression, diminished sleep quality, and a higher risk of car accident injury and death. 

Even if you want to spend less time scrolling social media on your phone, you may not be able to. This is how an addict feels with substance use. 

Social Media and Dopamine

Understanding the addictive nature of social media relies on gaining insight into dopamine. 

Our brains produce dopamine, and it plays a role in motivation. Dopamine is released when we do something pleasurable, including having social interactions. The dopamine response we have from pleasurable behaviors motivates us to keep repeating those stimuli. The dopamine pathways in our brand are considered reward pathways. In addiction, there is dysfunction seen in these paths. 

Reward pathways in the brain reinforce our feelings of feel-good reward that follows certain behaviors.

Smartphones and social media apps provide non-stop, rewarding stimuli in the form of social interactions. Each time we see a notification on our Facebook or we get a like on Instagram, there’s a flood of dopamine that triggers the addictive reward cycle. 

Consider over the past decade how many more notifications you likely get from Facebook as part of this. You are now getting notifications for interactions you have with groups and for things that you aren’t even directly involved in. It’s those notifications that keep you going back for more and incentivize you to repeat your behaviors and Facebook knows that. 

On Instagram, there’s a trick where likes are withheld on your photos so that then they can be delivered in a larger burst. What happens is that you initially may feel let down because you aren’t getting the responses you thought you would on Instagram, but then your dopamine centers are activated when you get that collection of likes later on. 

So, What Can You Do?

How you decide to handle the information provided in The Social Dilemma is up to you and what your goals are, but research is increasingly showing us that at least limiting your social media exposure can be tremendously beneficial for your mental health. 

Consider a social media detox, or put yourself on a strict timer to only use social media 30 minutes a day. 

What you have to realize is that this is going to be tough if you’re used to engaging with social media all day. 

You have to rewire your brain, and it takes time to do that. You may get frustrated when you find yourself picking your phone up after you just put it down, but if you can be more mindful of what you’re doing, it can help you change those pathways in your brain hijacked by social media. 

Watching The Social Dilemma can provide you with more insight into how social media is affecting you without you knowing it. The film might give you the motivation you need to cut social media out of your life or at least make changes in how you use it, interact with and it, and rely on it.

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