There’s a girl staring into a mirror.
She has a bland expression on her face, but something’s not quite right.
She keeps touching her hair as if she wants to push her ears in. Earlier that day, someone shared an elephant emoji on one of her social media posts. “Can your ears be any bigger?” the person asked in a comment. Maybe it didn’t register at first.
It does now. Looking into the mirror, she pushes her ear in again as a tear drops down her face. You feel the pain she’s experiencing from what was probably meant as a joke.
Sadly, it’s not a joke. This is a scene from the documentary film called The Social Dilemma on Netflix and it’s one of the most important movies the company has ever released, especially if you have kids. When I watched it, I took furious notes about who was speaking and what they said. That’s partly because I’m currently working on a book about good and bad habits, but mostly because it’s a riveting expose.
Look, I know how this all works. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think how all of this constant clicking, swiping, and liking has impacted our lives. I’ve covered social media since about 2008 when these apps debuted on mobile devices.
I wrote about the dangers even back then. My own journey had a major false start. I created a Twitter account in about 2007 and posted a few article links, then noticed someone kept bashing my work over and over. I deleted that Twitter account and started over about six months later. It’s one reason my only option was @jmbrandonbb and not something a bit easier to find. Honestly, I didn’t want my full, real name to appear in the username after that initial foray.
I’m quite a bit older than the middle schooler who appears in that documentary, and that scene is a re-creation that runs throughout the film as a way to depict what life is like now. Some people seem to hate it. To me, it’s spot on. The girl is an actor but I couldn’t help but wonder if the tears were genuine and based on real experiences. We’re all human. In one segment, the brilliant ethicist Tristan Harris notes that we were not really meant to receive feedback on what we do and say every five minutes.
The documentary is exposing some hard truths. It uses terms like surveillance capitalism and positive intermittent reinforcement that, quite honestly, if you don’t already know what they mean then you might already be lulled into the honeytrap. You might already be stuck in one.
“Social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used,” says Harris. “It has its own goals and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your own psychology against you.”
In other words: The tool is alive. It knows you. It’s feeding you information you think you want and need but in reality is eliciting action and clicks as a way to fuel advertising.
The documentary does not soften any punches. It refers to us as lab rats in a way that is not meant to be funny anymore. We’re all rats at this point. We think it’s all about getting cheese as a reward and it’s harmless, but there is a lot more at stake. Not sure if you know this, but most lab rats don’t live a long and fruitful life.
I learned several other terms. Dopamine deficit state. A pleasure-pain balance. It’s like I’m being pulled out of the matrix, although I’ve known about the allure for some time. Most of us like the matrix, mostly because of the juicy steak.
Tools that are alive are the most dangerous. My view is that it’s time to start viewing digital media and other apps as part of the vast experiment that the movie is describing and to do something about it. There are quite a few methods to combat the allure of social media, but there is one you can do right now after reading this.
We know we’re clicking too much. We know it’s captivating. One simple step to consider: Grab your phone right now and look over your apps. Which one is capturing all of your attention right now? For the techies out there, you can actually find out. On an iPhone, for example, long-press on Settings, go to Battery, and scroll down to see your most used apps. This is not easy to admit, but lately mine has been Instagram. I’ve been documenting the book-writing process but I’m going to delete it for a month.
I’ll report back later on how this all went. If you deleted an app you have been using too much, that has been pulling you away from real life, drop me an email and explain why you use it so much. Let me know if you really did delete it, and what you hope to gain from this exercise. Let’s compare notes on our findings.