Put Down Your Phone–If You Can–And Watch “The Social Dilemma”

Movie Review: Alarming documentary exposes addictiveness and danger of phones and social media



Angie Stevenson

Every day, I wake up and before my eyes even adjust to the morning light or I drag myself out of bed, I instantly reach for my phone.

 My fingers almost unconsciously tap into Instagram, Snapchat and Tik Tok, where I begin scrolling aimlessly through my feeds.  Scrolling, liking, tapping.  Scrolling, liking, tapping.  I then refresh, and instantly, I am bombarded with a new set of pictures and videos, which seem to be weirdly tailored just for me.

Skyler Gisondo in “The Social Dilemma.” Photo from Netflix.

Why are we constantly reaching for our devices, allowing them to consume our time and our thoughts?  What makes it so painfully difficult for us to stay off our phones for more than a couple of hours?  If you are ever plagued by these thoughts, watching the documentary, The Social Dilemma, will uncover answers to these questions–and they will freak you out.  

This enlightening 93-minute film, which recently dropped on Netflix, scrutinizes the hidden truths behind social media through various narrative devices that keep viewers engaged. Candid and forceful, “The Social Dilemma” explores the depths that tech companies plumb to spy on us, manipulate us, and use our own human nature to control who we are. 

Jeff Orlowski, producer and director of “Chasing Ice” (2012), for which he won an Emmy, now focuses his attention on educating viewers to the secret designs of social media, bringing together a group of former high-level employees from some of the most powerful tech companies including Google, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  The very people who helped create these platforms we can’t live without, now recognize and fear the social media monster that is impossible to control. 

Sophia Hammons in “The Social Dilemma. Photo from Netflix.

Most of us willingly allow ourselves to be consumed by our devices, completely unaware of what is happening with every tap of our finger.  We learn from The Social Dilemma that the goal of these tech companies is ensuring we spend as much time as possible on our phones, as every precious minute of our day is another data point and another dollar gained for them.  

As you watch the documentary, you will discover that these companies are extremely sophisticated, predicting our present and future actions, as well as carefully monitoring and storing all of our data, as we blindly scroll through our pages.  In one disturbing interview, professor Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, cautions that, “they have more information about us than ever imagined in human history.”   

This data is used to curate virtual worlds made to specifically target our wants and desires.  For most of us, these wants and desires are largely harmless, but as noted in the documentary, alarmingly 64 percent of people who joined extremist groups on Facebook, were guided there by these powerful algorithms. 

The Silicon Valley insiders who helped create the algorithms that give each user information (or misinformation) reflecting their likes, now worry about disastrous consequences of everybody having their own version of reality. Tech pioneer Jaron Lanier cautions, “If we go down the status quo for, let’s say, another 20 years, we probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance.”

 Orlowski uses not only the more traditional documentary style of informative interviews with experts in the field; he also weaves a narrative of a realistic American family struggling to connect with one another, as their addictions to social media get the best of them.  This fictional strand, which illustrates problems ranging from a teenage girl becoming depressed because of negative comments on her feed to a boy getting drawn into extreme politics, shines a light on the real-life effects that social media has on friendships and family relationships.

It is clear that “The Social Dilemma” wasn’t made in hopes of convincing every viewer to delete their social media accounts or throw away their phones.  Instead, Orlowski’s goal is to knock some sense into us, forcing us to recognize that we have been manipulated and brainwashed by tech companies without consciously knowing.  

Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist, notes that technology is confusing, as it is both, “simultaneously utopia and dystopia.”  While these technologies have opened a window into an amazing interactive playground for all of its users, it comes at a steep price.  Problems such as the complete loss of privacy, as well as the inescapable feeling of obligation to always be present on these platforms confront us all. 

Although this documentary showcases all of the doom and gloom regarding social media, it instills hope for our future, as well. “The Social Dilemma” suggests that there is still time to modify our personal habits and reign in the negative aspects of these platforms and their consequences.  Knowledge is a powerful tool, and by watching this documentary you will become more aware of your addicting habits. Personally, “The Social Dilemma” has forced me to rethink my entire outlook on social media.  I have become more mindful of limiting my time spent on social media, as well as breaking the attachment I have created for my phone.  

I believe we all need this wake up call, as it is extremely easy to fall victim to the manipulation of these platforms.  

Take time out of your day, turn off your phone–which may be a struggle–and instead, watch “The Social Dilemma,” which will explain exactly why it was so hard for you to put down your phone in the first place.