Social media seems to encompass every aspect of human life in the current world. It has grown so pervasive and dominant that people do not consider how it influences their lives. Social media has transformed into an essential element of everyday human activity. One must note that this transformation has been achieved through careful manipulation of human minds. The Social Dilemma is a Netflix documentary that explores social media’s influence on its users. The film delineates how these online platforms focus on grabbing the attention of their users, thereby gradually changing their behaviors and attitudes. It reveals the darker side of social media, in which manipulation becomes a predominant element as the platforms solely focus on attracting users toward constantly using them. Social media negatively influences students, especially adolescents, who are prone to confuse the virtual world with reality. They might think they are invincible because these online platforms allow them to remain anonymous and take on a different identity. In this case, social media undoubtedly threatens the perceptions of the real world. Social media threatens the perceptions of the real world, as evidenced by their pervasive influence on students, simplification of human lives, and proliferation of false news, making their users addicted to them.
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Students maintain a sense of online invincibility because they grew up in a technologically advanced environment. The frequency of their exposure to social media, mobile phones, and computers is higher than any other generation. Many of them love to stay connected online. Nowadays, kids consider email a formal mode of communication, while tweets and texts are casual (McCarthy 4). Today’s children are more likely to have risk-taking behaviors, which have a significant connection with technology (McCarthy 4). Online technology permits them to feel anonymous when engaging in online bullying, trolling, or catfishing (McCarthy 4). Students thus maintain a sense of invincibility because of their perceived online anonymity. They believe that their actions on online platforms will not make them accountable. Social media also exposes them to unrealistic beauty ideals, thus providing them with a distorted sense of reality. Subsequently, adolescents develop insecurities and a lack of self-esteem regarding their appearance.
Jiotsa et al. studied the relationship between body dissatisfaction and a person’s comparison of their physical features to people they follow on social media. The study sample comprised individuals aged 15 to 35, some of whom suffered from eating disorders (Jiotsa et al. 1). The researchers sought to understand social media’s relationship with eating disorders among young users. The results found a stronger correlation between the use of Facebook and Instagram and body dissatisfaction (Jiotsa et al. 10). These platforms are some of the most popular social media sites. However, Instagram differs from Facebook because it focuses on uploading pictures rather than posts or feeds. They also found that body dissatisfaction can lead to eating disorders (Jiotsa et al. 10). Social media promotes unrealistic body ideals, which can significantly impact adolescents’ psychology. In The Social Dilemma, one of the young characters looks at the mirror and checks her face to see if she looks good (The Social Dilemma 41:35-41-45). She is keen on uploading her pictures on Instagram and reading others’ comments about her. One must notice that young users like her around the world are being exposed to the critical and inquisitive gazes of other people who can comment not only on good things about the uploader but also on negative things that will have an impact on the user’s self-esteem. Adolescent girls are more likely to develop eating disorders and depression due to their exposure to social media. According to Jiotsa et al., patients with eating disorders construct a cognitive structure focusing on weight and a distorted viewpoint of their body image (10). In the study by Jiotsa et al., the subjects wished to have a thinner body than the general population, which resulted in an inconsistency between the reality of their perception and what they wanted to be (Jiotsa et al. 10). Here, one can perceive how social media has managed to influence people’s perceptions of their reality. It encourages them to think everything they see on social media is real. A study by Ridgway and Clayton revealed that posting selfies on Instagram can result in conflicts and negative romantic relationships (2). The research, which focused on Instagram users aged 18 to 62, found that body image satisfaction determines Instagram selfie posting (Ridgway and Clayton 2). When users are dissatisfied with their body image, they will start promoting themselves via online platforms. Users seek validation through Instagram selfies (Ridgway and Clayton 6). Here, one could see how people conflate their reality with the virtual world.
Social media simplifies human experiences. However, many social media users seek validation by uploading their life updates on social media. In such ways, they try to gain others’ approval. For instance, Miller et al. claim that Facebook users in South India upload pictures of their newborn babies, which entails the photo receiving many comments and likes from family members, although everyone had already congratulated them face-to-face or via phone calls (108). Facebook is a platform on which family relationships are actively performed before non-family contacts (Miller et al. 108). One can see how Facebook blurs the line between reality and the virtual world. People had long considered it part of the norm to update on Facebook when they got engaged to a partner or got married. In northern Chile, people consider a romantic relationship valid only after the partners upload the status on Facebook (Miller et al. 109). Here, social media has a massive influence on its users, and they consider it essential to upload their relationship status on it so that other people will consider it valid. In such ways, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat encourage users to seek validation through constant updates and posts.
The Social Dilemma reveals a shocking reality that has always existed before our eyes. However, we were unaware of it until now. It informs the future world of the negative impact of social media and that truth and facts in the information age are rapidly eroding because of the concentration of power in the hands of a select few individuals. The founders of Facebook and Google think that artificial intelligence (AI) can solve everything. Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist, explains that AI cannot differentiate the truth from the lies because it does not know what truth is (The Social Dilemma 1:15:34). Facebook and Google proposed using algorithms to detect fake news. Previously, she pointed out that those algorithms are personal opinions of people, which means that they are not objective (The Social Dilemma 47:41-47:51). Algorithms are created by profit-oriented commercial enterprises (The Social Dilemma 47:53-48:00). In this case, an algorithm’s identification of truth will be based on the people who created it. It essentially means that the process of fact-checking and identifying fake news on Facebook will largely depend on the subjectivity of the algorithm’s creators. This situation reveals a scary reality in which social media has caused people to become liable to the manipulations of a few influential individuals. The Social Dilemma thus urges its viewers not to view everything they see and read on social platforms as truth. They must check whether the news or a social media post reflects the truth. It requires the critical eye of social media users. Many people do not want to spend time investigating whether the news is fake or not. They are comfortable with it as long as it fits their ideology. This process is especially significant for students of today’s world, as they grew up in a world of technology and tend to perceive that the virtual world is equivalent to reality.
In addition, The Social Dilemma makes its viewers contemplate the pervasive influence of social media on its users. Many people featured in the documentary talk about their smartphone or social media experiences. Tim Kendall, the former executive of Facebook, talks about returning home after work and not being able to get off his phone (The Social Dilemma 30:57-31:06). He says that he fell prey to the very thing that he built (The Social Dilemma 31:23). Social media has an insidious influence on its users, even though most of them are unaware of it. Many of us can relate to the feeling of involuntarily reaching for our mobile phones. It is as if human minds have started considering smartphones and social media an inevitable part of their bodily functions. In the documentary, a quote from Edward Tufte relays that only two industries in the world describe their customers as “users”: drug trafficking and software companies (The Social Dilemma 30:55). This statement made us see social media platforms in a different light. It revealed that social media is highly addictive, and most social media users do not even know that they are addicted to these online platforms because it is quite normal for individuals to keep checking their phones. They grab their phones without hesitation, which reveals that such a process has become a regular part of everyone’s life. It is not new to see individuals scrolling through their phones, constantly refreshing their feeds. Social media can thus become a utopia and a dystopia simultaneously.
The future seems bleak when one considers the implications of the predictions made in The Social Dilemma. Technology having complete control over every activity a person does is undoubtedly scary. When asked what he fears the most, Kendall tells the interviewer that he fears civil war (The Social Dilemma 1:20:21). In the current social and political contexts, one can already see the crises and upheavals rocking the democracy of many nations around the world. In 2021, former President Donald Trump instigated the storming of Capitol Hill via social media. His supporters used social media sites to share information about the streets they use to avoid the police and the tools they must take to open the doors (Frenkel). In such ways, online activism transformed into outright violence. John Tester, the U.S. senator, tells Tristan Harris that the future scares him to death (The Social Dilemma 1:19:59-1:20:05). However, the future need not be scary. Human technology can exist beneficially. In The Social Dilemma, Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, points out that Facebook differs from Wikipedia. While the former tries to manipulate its users by presenting them with content that fits their preferences, the latter presents only the content that the users searched for. Wikipedia does not manipulate data, so the user must keep returning to the application. This separation of Facebook and Wikipedia significantly struck me because, in the latter case, we can see that technology can still benefit humanity without being manipulative or deceptive. Social media can thus develop into a similar form by removing the current practices of providing content that fits users’ preferences. This practice will prevent the proliferation of fake news and remove the psychological manipulation of social media to get users addicted to using them.
In the future, more regulations must be enacted so that technology companies do not wield autonomous control over the Internet. As discussed in The Social Dilemma, the law related to social media and the Internet is extremely limited because the legal system did not keep up with the rapid advancement of technology. In this regard, the legal institution must keep up with technological advancements. Governments worldwide must introduce regulations to prevent the manipulative nature of social media platforms. In addition, regulations regarding the collection of user data must be introduced. Most importantly, governments must introduce laws to regulate adolescents’ use of social media. Awareness regarding the insidious effect of social media on adolescent minds must spread among parents. In such ways, humane technology can exist. Educational programs focusing on social media addiction must spread awareness among students so they will use these platforms carefully without falling into the traps of body image ideals and unrealistic perceptions.
In essence, social media is simultaneously a utopia and a dystopia. One cannot say that social media platforms have not benefited humanity, and they have significantly contributed to the progress of human life in many ways by improving communication, exposure, and the sharing of ideas. Nonetheless, social media platforms present a dystopia because they harm users’ psychology, making them confuse the virtual world with the real. They are also manipulative, as evidenced by Facebook and Instagram’s focus on understanding human behavior patterns and using the data for advertising. Recent social and political upheavals and their relationship with social media reflect their pervasive and insidious influence. Most social media users are unaware of how Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter use their data to manipulate and increase advertising revenues. In short, the online world that social media has created has already blurred the line that separates it from reality. One could say that it did so through careful manipulation of its users. In this regard, governments worldwide must consider how social media and unregulated technological advancements can impact humanity. Humane technology can exist, but only through regulations controlling social media companies’ profit-oriented goals.
Frenkel, Sheera. “The Storming of Capitol Hill Was Organized on Social Media.” The New York Times, 6 Jan. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/01/06/us/politics/protesters-storm-capitol-hill-building.html.
Jiotsa, Barbara, et al. “Social Media Use and Body Image Disorders: Association between Frequency of Comparing One’s Own Physical Appearance to that of People Being Followed on Social Media and Body Dissatisfaction and Drive for Thinness.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 18, no. 6, 11 Mar. 2021, p. 2880, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8001450/, 10.3390/ijerph18062880.
McCarthy, Claudine. “Address Students’ Self‐Perception of Online Invincibility, Anonymity.” Student Affairs Today, vol. 22, no. 4, 20 June 2019, pp. 1–4, 10.1002/say.30623. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.
Miller, Daniel, et al. How the World Changed Social Media. London, Ucl Press, 2016.
Ridgway, Jessica L., and Russell B. Clayton. “Instagram Unfiltered: Exploring Associations of Body Image Satisfaction, Instagram #Selfie Posting, and Negative Romantic Relationship Outcomes.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, vol. 19, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 2–7, 10.1089/cyber.2015.0433.
The Social Dilemma. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, performances by Tristan Harris, Aza Raskin, and Jeff Seibert, Netflix, 2020.