'The Social Dilemma' warns that social media is a serious threat to humanity

In this Netflix documentary, industry insiders lay bare the dangers of social media; we asked local experts to weigh in

20 September 2020 - 00:03 By claire keeton
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Social media apps are designed to be addictive, say the experts.
Social media apps are designed to be addictive, say the experts.
Image: 123RF/rawpixel

Social media might not attach to our cells like coronavirus but it gets into our heads in insidious ways and takes a high toll on society, as the trending Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma shows.

What social media and the virus have in common is how rapidly and stealthily they spread, with the potential to harm humanity: from rising depression to polarisation and even loss of life across the world. The rate of suicide among teenage girls has grown since the explosion of social media.

The superheroes swooping in waving a red flag about the risks of the social media pandemic in this film include some of the tech geniuses who helped develop these platforms - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. That's why The Social Dilemma is impossible to ignore. They are insiders, and they know what they're talking about.

The narrative winds tighter and tighter, proving that social media influences behaviour to make money for big tech. It's an existential threat to humanity.

Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, warns that now is the time to change.

Unless we become more aware of our behaviour - resisting push notifications and the recommendations that cause us to disappear down online rabbit holes for hours - our ability to pay attention to what really matters to us, and the planet, will further erode.

WATCH | 'The Social Dilemma' trailer.

Social media apps are designed to be addictive, say the experts. It's built into the apps. Most top tech players in Silicon Valley don't allow their children on these platforms because they know the tricks that have been built into them to manipulate our impulses.

A graph, shown in the documentary, matches the sharp rise in social media, depression and suicide among teenage girls.

A fictional drama in the movie about how social media disrupts a family feels jarring, but it shows its influence. Only two big industries, the documentary reminds us, call their clients users: illegal drugs and social media.

In SA, doctoral student Jess Oosthuizen is on the University of Cape Town cyberpsychology team, researching the role of devices in the lives of digital natives to understand the psychological impact social media apps have on "their relationships, their development, and their self-concept".


• 6-million people on TikTok

• 9-million people on Facebook

• 9-million people on Instagram

• 9-million people on Twitter

Source: South African Social Media Landscape 2020 

When she did her master's, she asked the adolescent volunteers in her research project to give up their smartphones and detox for a month.

"The longest time a participant was willing to give up their phone was for a period of 10 days … One of the participants agreed to participate in the detox from breakfast until supper," says Oosthuizen — read more about her research below.

In the movie, the algorithms that trap our attention are signified by sinister players in a dark room who turn the dials whenever "Ben", an adolescent user, turns away from his screen. They try to keep him hooked as long as possible because more screen time means bigger profits.

When social media grabs our attention, we're being fed the content we crave and have become addicted to, and the feeds are developed to subtly sway our behaviour, one click at a time.

Another Capetonian, Dean McCoubrey, the founder of MySociaLife, a digital life skills programme for students, says: "Parents want, and society desperately needs, our kids to have an informed and balanced world view, compassion, empathy, and the skills of critical thinking.

"While the internet exposes us to more, and educates us, an algorithm can swim upstream against these values, feeding us more and more information to keep us glued to our screens. Before long, we start believing what we're being fed, instead of contemplating it or challenging it. We become like hamsters on a wheel."

The Social Dilemma highlights how social media serves up different "facts" according to a person's preferences, not a common set of facts like Wikipedia does. It tailors the world to suit each person's predilections and prejudices and puts forward that vision of the world as the "truth".

If you're an Anti-Vaxxer, that's what you'll see on your feeds - they become an echo chamber. If you're a Flat Earther, that's what you see on your news feed. Irrespective of whether it is true or false. It compounds global confusion, especially in countries that rely on social media apps for their news, like Myanmar and the Philippines.

If you google "Climate change is …", you will get different results depending on where you live and what Google knows about your search history.

McCoubrey was motivated to teach kids about the smart use of their devices after heeding what many of the experts interviewed in this film have been warning about.

Now he gives students the knowledge and tools to safely navigate the massive online landscape of "digital identity, reputation management, privacy, security, sexuality online, critical thinking, mental health, compassion and empathy".

If you google 'Climate change is … ', you will get different results depending on where you live and what Google knows about your search history

"MySociaLife believes critical thinking, and the eight digital soft skills that we teach in schools, will be the superpower combination to accompany technical ability for Generation Z," he says.

Gaining self-awareness is critical to manage these devices in a way that benefits our lives, says Oosthuizen.

That's why the Centre for Humane Technology and former Google ethicist Harris are raising awareness through documentaries like these.

One of her students told Oosthuizen after her detox: "I felt more in control because I think sometimes our phones control us. Not having access to it, I was in control of my time management; my phone wasn't a distraction."

The essence of The Social Dilemma is to remind us who's in control of this powerful and marvellous technology: is it us, or the increasingly smart algorithms programmed to exploit the information they have on us?

• 'The Social Dilemma' is on Netflix.


Jess Oosthuizen's research suggests that smartphones have become a crucial part of how adolescents navigate the world. Smartphones have become a psychological safety net to avoid the awkwardness of growing up. Detoxing gave participants another perspective and a sense of freedom of what life was like "IRL" (in real life).

Thuli: "Before the detox… I thought you could survive without having to approach people [face-to-face] because I had the cushion of social media. But without social media, I realised that [social interaction] is actually vital.

Gugu: "Before the detox my phone was just a part of me. Me and my phone - we could not get separated. I felt awkward at first. As days went along, a bit more normal. I could actually see things around me… what was going on around me."

Max: "[After the detox] I know I'm in control and I don't need to have Facebook open. I don't have to have the Twitter open. I can hide them and be perfectly content going about my day."

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