Last month I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix in a very relaxed-scrolling-on-my-phone-the-entire-time manner. It was ironic that I was engaging with all the persuasive technology the film was describing without thinking too carefully about the implications of Web 2.0. In preparation for this post, I decided to re-watch the film which a much more critical eye and without the distraction of my phone. As a result, I heard more information that I maybe did not want to hear or believe to be true the first time. This post will share some of my thoughts on how Web 2.0 has influenced our lives in both positive and negative ways and the implications for our schools and society
Web 2.0 – The Negatives
The Social Dilemma is a film that focuses a lot on the negative influences that social media and persuasive technology has had on users for the last 10-15 years. Many of the original team members at companies like Facebook and Instagram describe that the way we use social media apps is much different that what was even expected by the developers. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and now founder of the Center for Humane Technology, is interviewed extensively throughout the film. One of his focuses at Google was ethical design and human persuasion. During his time, he questioned if the designers should be working to make Gmail less addicting and shared a presentation with his colleagues called A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention. Harris highlights the significant responsibility of mostly 25-35 year old white males in Silicon Valley and their impact on how millions of people around the world would spend their time.
Throughout the film, the viewer becomes aware of many negative influences of social media, devices and constant connection. Everything you do on your phone or social media apps is being tracked, watched and measured, even how long you spend viewing a particular image. The scary part is this information is then fed into a system with no human supervision and models are continuously built to predict our next actions. The goals of these companies are to engage the user for the longest period of time, grow the user connection and determine the best advertising based on interactions within the apps. Each goal is powered by algorithms trying to make as much money as possible. In the video, “The Truth About Algorithms” by Cathy O’Neil, she explains how algorithms are prone to bias and discrimination as a result of the humans who program them.
The Social Dilemma also explores many negative mental health consequences from the addiction to social media, especially among young people. Self-harm hospitalizations and suicides have risen exponentially since the widespread use of social media on mobile devices among young people began in the early 2010s. This is achieved through “persuasive design techniques like push notifications and the endless scroll of your newsfeed” to create “a feedback loop that keeps us glued to our devices.” (The Social Dilemma: The Dilemma).
Another negative is the realization that when we are using social media apps, we are not using a product. Instead, we, the users, are the product and our data is being sold to advertisers following a business model to keep people engaged on the screen for the longest time possible. Shoshana Zuboff created the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe the new way companies claim private human experience as products.
Implications for schools and society
The design technique of social media apps is to use positive intermittent reinforcement (similar to how gamblers feel using slot machines in a casino). Each time you refresh your feed, new information is available to entice users to stay engaged longer. The Social Dilemma compares users to lab rats as developers are constantly doing small experiments to manipulate the environment and keep users coming back. Unfortunately, humans are not evolved to have social approval “dosed to us every 5 minutes” (Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma).
Generation Z (born 1996 and later) have been described as “digital natives” who began using social media during middle school – a pivotal moment in their intellectual growth and development. The online connection for these generations has been the only world younger people have experienced. As previously mentioned, there have been an increase in suicide and self-harm hospitalizations with the introduction of social media. There are many harms with social media, so it is important to build a healthy relationship with technology. The Center for Humane Technology explains how social media has taken over young people’s relationships and is “constructing their daily reality—homework, weekend plans, flirting, friendship, their sense of self and belonging—all within a system that is designed to capture and monetize our attention.”
A few suggestions from The Center for Humane Technology to balance social media and well-being include deleting toxic apps and asking the questions, “Do I like this app?” and “How does this app make me feel?” before and after using it. They also suggest delaying the introduction of smart phones and social media in young people’s lives and to create digital-well being guidelines with your family.
Web 2.0 – The Positives
After watching The Social Dilemma, you may feel like throwing your phone out the window or deleting all your social media. But I think it is important to acknowledge that positives exist when social media can be paired with responsible use and an understanding of digital citizenship.
There are the obvious benefits of connecting with friends and family from all over the world. Keeping in touch with loved ones and sharing special moments is very easy with Web 2.0. Raising money for organizations, individuals (GoFundMe.com) or through social media activism has brought people together around the world to support important causes.
Furthermore, Web 2.0 has been a game changer for educational technology and supporting online and distance education. On a personal note, the connections I have made with educators around the world on Twitter and in Facebook groups have been extremely valuable to my professional development as an online educator. Since I am constantly engaging with #edtech posts on Twitter, the algorithm is working in my favour and showing me new and useful tools. Web 2.0 has provided me with a never-ending supply of information related to teaching and learning. I think it is important to note that through my studies at the University of Regina and Edtech courses, I have gained valuable insights about how to engage with information online and understanding the importance of media literacy.
A Personal Challenge
At the end of the film, the activists interviewed in The Social Dilemma share some of their biggest tips when using social media and being online. These included turning off all notifications, using extensions and ad blockers online, not accepting recommended videos on YouTube, no phone in the bedroom and delaying your introduction of social media with children. Since my daughter is still young, I am very curious what the world will be like with social media when she reaches middle school age. My husband and I have no plans to introduce personal technology to our daughter in the near future, but it will be interesting to see if we actually hold out. It is easy when we are in our own COVID bubble and she does not see any other young people using devices, but I also said I would not let her watch television all day. I have every song from Frozen, Frozen II and Moana memorized if that gives you a glimpse into how we spent our quarantine this spring…
Since tomorrow is November 1st, I always love a good start-of-a-new-month challenge. For the entire month of November, I am going to turn off all push notifications on my phone AND not use my phone for at least the 30 minutes before bed. Anyone else with me?
Until next time,