‘The social dilemma’, a 2020 Netflix documentary written and directed by Jeff Orlowski, gives an insight into the designing of social media platforms and how these affect mental health, especially regarding young people.

The graphs and statistic data shown in the documentary are quite frightening: suicide rates in the US have risen up by 151% for young girls (from age 10 to 14) and by 70% for teenage girls (from age 15 to 19), while hospital admissions for non-fatal self harm in the US have risen up by 189% for young girls and by 62% for teenage girls, all in the last decade.

Political views are becoming more and more polarized: this means that political beliefs are brought to their ideological extremes, and the situation can degenerate into riots and disorders.

The narration alternates between interviews to former employees of social media and tech companies (such as Google, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and the story of a family affected by the usage of social media.

It explains how these platforms are programmed and the psychological studies that contribute to the way they’re built, and its purpose is to warn every social media user of how things actually work, hoping to mold a generation of critical and mindful consumers. It tries to open the viewer’s eyes to reality.

The first lesson that this documentary teaches the viewer, is that “there are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software”. If at a first glance these words may seem funny, they say a lot about how the tech market is set.

Social media is a drug.

-‘the social dilemma’

Furthermore, social media are completely free to the user to install. But how can that company sustain itself if the service they’re offering is completely free? By ads. The company sells slots to other companies that want to advertise themselves or their products. So what they’re actually selling is the user’s attention. In fact, as the interviewees Daniel Hövermann and Jaron Lainer say, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product” and “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your behaviour and perception that is the product”.

It’s a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.

-‘the social dilemma’

The final, and perhaps more chilling and crucial point of the discussion, is that this state of things is “training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid we have a digital pacifier for ourselves that is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that.” (Tristan Harris).

Social media starts to dig deeper and deeper down the brain stem and take over kids’ sense of self-worth and identity.

-‘the social dilemma’

This documentary sends a lot of great messages and hints about problems that have risen up because of social media, but does it give any actual solutions to these problems? It doesn’t, and for this reason it has been criticised. But this wasn’t its purpose.

Its mere goal was to warn the viewer, so that everyone can make the best use of their social media platforms based off of their knowledge.

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