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Introducing Social Media in a New Light— How We’ve Been Fighting the Wrong Addiction All Along and What to Do Instead

"the social dilemma" documentary technology and social media negative effects

If you had to take a shot for every time you’ve heard “the social dilemma” in the past few weeks, how drunk would you be? 

Very, if you were me.

If you haven’t come across it, “The Social Dilemma” is a 2020 documentary exploring the dark side of social media. Shortly after release, it’s become increasingly popular, sparking conversations about the harmful systems behind social networking. 

Naturally, you might wonder, wait, haven’t we been talking about this for years now? Did I go through 45 episodes of Mr. Robot for nothing?

There’s a difference this time, the experts standing behind these harmful algorithms are speaking about them now.

The problem behind social media discussions and “The Social Dilemma”

So what’s the fuss about? Do we really have shorter attention spans than goldfishes now? Is social media destroying our brains, relationships, and our most precious connection to the Earth and self?

Most people our age are well aware of the dangers of social media and technology use.

The world’s internet users spend 6 hours and 42 minutes online each day. 

The Global Digital Report 2019

One does not simply forget they spend almost seven hours a day online. If you have an iPhone, it will remind you every Sunday at ~7 am what a smartphone crackhead you are.

This notification felt amazing though.

Anyway, I believe the main issue is the way we consume content rather than the amount of time spent online.

“Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.”

Was it John Lennon who said that? While I’m not sure, I can find out in a minute. I can also listen to his songs, look at his photographs, read his interviews, find out about his romantic life.

My point is technology and internet aren’t bad per se.

The same goes for social media. What matters more than the time spent there, or the number of followers you have, is the people you follow, and the kind of information you engage with.

The tweet below sums up “The Social Dilemma” in less than 280 characters.

I’ve found that a lot of things come down to one big juicy concept— power. Every game is a power game because power controls micro and macro systems, which certainly, games are. I could’ve just said “controls everything,” but I like saying macro.

We can’t regain our power if we don’t understand what giving it away entails. How are we allowing ourselves to base our opinions on the opinions of those who directly profited from them?!

If someone is telling you they manipulated you, is it enough that they’re telling you that now? Are they suddenly more trustworthy or somehow all-knowing?

Whats math about?

Recently, I was listening to a podcast where the guest had a Ph.D. in math. The whole conversation was a treat, highly recommended. Someone asked about viable career paths for math students.

“Th” is a beautiful letter, and yes, it’s one single letter in Albanian, and so is “sh” or “gj” (our alphabet has 36 letters). 

Anyway, part of the answer stuck with me.

“People used to say, if you’re in math and you’re a good person, you go into tech; if you’re in math and you’re a bad person, you go into finance.”

He said that the saying most likely originated in the 2000s when tech was still considered “good.” Oh, and he went into finance, so boo-hoo.

The first time I heard about the concept of “good tech” and “bad tech” was in a New Yorker article. A bunch of people were even part of this “good tech society,” vouching to protect our constitutional rights and stopping bad tech from controlling every aspect of our life, without our real consent. 

“Real” because we say yes to cookies, thinking nothing of it, meanwhile, we’re giving away our data, preferences, location, age, and much more.

The saying “Welcome to the dark side, we have cookies” never looked so suspicious.

My problem with “The Social Dilemma” is that it’s still the people holding the power defining the narrative. That, and how there were little to no Black people in it.

However, that’s not my biggest issue with social media. It’s the fact we’re blaming it while the problem is another one completely.

Social media isn’t the problem

Toby Hazlewood is a writer I really like, he shares refreshingly honest ideas covering divorce, personal improvement, kids, co-parenting, and recently, going off the grid for a month.

He said this experiment showed him “how entrenched technology and in particular, his smartphone had become in his life” and that he was determined not to go back to his old ways.

I replied to the newsletter he sends out to his subscribers, telling him I loved his articles and weekly updates. About the going off the grid part, I recommended an article I’d read recently. Below is a photo excerpt.

Researchers that took a deep look into studies done on the links between technology and wellbeing, found little to no evidence of correlation.

They’re founded on opinion, you know how reliable those are. So social media and technology aren’t directly harmful to our wellbeing?

If social media isn’t the problem, what is? Distraction.

After I sent Toby that article, he thanked me and said he found the perspective very interesting, “distraction doesn’t really originate from the outside device or gadget, but rather from inside us.”

Our biggest struggle isn’t with technology, or Instagram, or screen time, it’s with distraction.

The author of the article I shared that photo excerpt from, Nir Eyal, spent five years committed to understanding distraction, its causes, and its cures.

Like many others, he thought this journey would entail no social media and no excessive use of digital technology. However, he discovered that even when he broke free from his smartphone addiction, he still wouldn’t be present in the moment, taking it in fully.

While it’s easy to blame the algorithms and the hidden systems at play (mentioned in “The Social Dilemma”) for our social media addiction, distraction is all us.

I wrote about how procrastination is an emotional problem, saying: “Your messy room, your unfinished essay, the project you are slowly, but surely getting behind on. They’re all signs of a bigger, underlying problem.”

Unless you’re like a social media manager, spending 6 hours and 42 minutes online is a sign of a bigger, underlying problem.

Distractions stem from our desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings like loneliness, boredom, uncertainty.

If we want to break free, we need to constantly check our urges and choose whether to act on them, mindfully. Nothing honors our emotional wellbeing more than paying attention to our emotions and their underlying causes, not even a 6-month social media hiatus.

What to do

A few things I’ve been trying (sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding) to be more mindful about when it comes to digital consumption:

  1. I used to watch YouTube videos or scroll through Instagram while eating. Done with that.
  2. When I wake up, I never check my phone (besides to text my boyfriend good morning). It’s not until after I’ve meditated, showered, had breakfast, and went to work that I first check my email and social media. I believe this is very important because it sets the tone for the rest of the day.
  3. I’m trying to revert to reading a book on my Kindle app whenever I feel like doing something on my phone for no reason. Reading is one of the top tier distractions.
  4. Whenever I pick my phone up, I try to have a reason why. It doesn’t have to be a strong basis with three supporting paragraphs, but I try to only unlock my phone if I already know what I want to do: post an Instagram story, reply to a friend, add a song to my playlist.
  5. I find social media Web platforms user interfaces less addicting than mobile apps, I try to do whatever I can on my PC.
  6. I try not to use my phone in bed, and I only go to bed when I’m ready to sleep.

A few years ago, I was invited to join a panel discussion about information and communication in the twenty-first century. One of the panelists, an Internet pioneer, said proudly that his young daughter surfed the Web twelve hours a day and had access to a breadth and range of information that no one from a previous generation could have imagined.

I asked whether she had read any of Jane Austen’s novels, or any classic novel. When he said that she hadn’t, I wondered aloud whether she would then have a solid understanding of human nature or of society, and suggested that while she might be stocked with wide-ranging information, that was different from knowledge. Half the audience cheered; the other half booed.

The Machine Stops by Oliver Sacks

Wide-ranging information and knowledge are different. It’s our responsibility how we choose to explore this neverending encyclopedia with 24/7 availability.

“The Social Dilemma” gives a few helpful tips on how to make your digital content consumption more attentive. For example, by not clicking on recommended suggestions, which makes advertising publishers go loco. I’m not discrediting the documentary, it might be a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with “the annals of tech,” but I like pieces of work that give the full picture to the best of their abilities, and shortcuts usually don’t.

Distraction is the issue. Not being able to sit still with our thoughts and ourselves is the real addiction we need to break free from. Choose to face it head-on.

“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”


4 thoughts on “Introducing Social Media in a New Light— How We’ve Been Fighting the Wrong Addiction All Along and What to Do Instead”

  1. Intelligent perspective. I am far from being addicted to social media and the internet in general. Yet I find myself feeling that I am missing out in some ways? Rationally I know this is just a feeling. But at times I seem to fight the urge to just browse casually because I feel I am giving in. So in fear of being neurotic about it. I relax with a few glasses of whiskey and away I go! J/K But really. I am so old school that 99% of my online time will be on my laptop at home. My cell phone is strictly texting and phoning for communication. And that is mimimal.

    1. FOMO is engraved in most social media interfaces, UX and interactions. Big social media platforms want you to feel like you’re missing out. Mindful laptop usage, minimal phone time, and a glass or two of whiskey seems like the way to go 🙂

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