Students ponder The Social Dilemma

Mitav Nayak ’22 and The Social Dilemma – Ryan Rodack ’21

At this very moment, as I sit at my desk and write this article, my phone is adjacent to my computer, sitting on the counter. I know that whenever I want, I can pick it up, and in a couple of seconds, click on an app and see what my friends are doing. After that, I can go see what celebrities are doing, then check if anyone followed me, then watch a video of a person cutting a banana-shaped cake. I feel the temptation to go down this path; I know that as soon as I do, I will be rewarded with a hit of dopamine. But, I know myself—I know if I start, I will want to keep scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling. 

     I wonder if this cycle is bad. I wonder if, maybe, life would be better without it. When I watched The Social Dilemma, a documentary on Netflix about the problems with social media, I became convinced that maybe this cycle is kind of bad, yet I wasn’t sure what to do about it. 

     The documentary consists primarily of interviews with tech insiders, social psychologists, and academics. Together, they make a compelling case that technology companies manipulate their users, but it was one simple statistic that a social psychologist cited that convinced me that there is a problem. The psychologist’s name is Johnathan Haidt, and he works for the NYU Stern School of Business. He explained that the number of teenage girls who were admitted to a hospital because they cut or otherwise harmed themselves “was pretty stable until around 2010-2011, and then it [began] going way up.” Since 2009, this number is up 62% for older teen girls and 189% for preteen girls. But this isn’t even the worst of the statistics. The number of older teen girls committing suicide is up 70% in the last decade and up 151% for preteen girls. 

This is my generation he’s talking about. Me, my friends—we are the people who are supposed to be uniquely more anxious, fragile, and depressed than any past generation, and I’m sure a pandemic isn’t helping us with any of those.

     “Gen Z, those kids are the first generation in history that got on social media in middle school,” Haidt said. “A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed.”

     This is my generation he’s talking about. Me, my friends—we are the people who are supposed to be uniquely more anxious, fragile, and depressed than any past generation, and I’m sure a pandemic isn’t helping us with any of those. Yet the worst part is that we know what causes this widespread depression and anxiety. It doesn’t come out of thin air; it comes out of social media.

     After watching the documentary, I knew that social media had affected me in ways that probably weren’t good, but I wanted to find out if I was alone or if the people around me—Haverford students—have had similar experiences with social media. 

     Over the course of a week, I interviewed five Haverford students, all Fourth Formers, about their social media use. Because of the small sample size, this article can’t speak for Haverford as a whole, or even the upper school students as a whole, but it does represent the true feelings of the students I spoke to—feelings that I hope will resonate with people throughout our community. 

     The first thing I noticed was the sheer amount of time spent on social media, especially TikTok. 

     “Basically, when I’m bored, I go on TikTok and just waste all my time,” Student A said (names have been changed to protect students’ identities). “I wish it was gone. I hate it so much. It’s so addicting,” he said in a kind-of-a-joke tone of voice. When I asked him if he was considering deleting TikTok, he said he wouldn’t because he’ll “probably just redownload it later on.”

     It is for this reason that deleting social media seems like a near-impossible feat to many people, yet there was one student, Student B, who deleted both TikTok and Snapchat because of the high amount of time he spent on those platforms. 

     When Student B did this, he faced social repercussions. He kept in touch with his friends from his old school primarily through Snapchat, and the moment he deleted his account, he lost some connections with these friends.

     “I can see why kids wouldn’t want to delete Snapchat ’cause that’s kind of how you keep your connections nowadays,” Student B said. 

     Student B was not alone in feeling like he was spending too much time on social media, but he was alone in thinking that deleting the apps would solve that problem. 

The Social Dilemma poster via Wikimedia Commons

     As it turns out, most people who use social media feel like they have a hard time controlling their time on it. In The Social Dilemma, Tristan Harris, a computer scientist who left Google to start a nonprofit, tried to explain why we are so vulnerable to social media algorithms.

     “Realistically speaking, you’re living inside of hardware, a brain, that is millions of years old,” Harris said. “And then there’s this screen, and on the opposite side of the screen, there are these thousands of engineers and supercomputers that have goals that are different than your goals. And so, who’s going to win in that game?”

     Student C, a fourth former, said that he gets his work done on time and his social media usage is not a big problem, yet he still maintained that, at least on TikTok, “you watch it, and you just go, you keep going, and you can lose track.” 

     When you “lose track,” it doesn’t just happen—technology companies intentionally design platforms so that psychologically, it’s nearly impossible not to “lose track.” 

     The former president of Facebook, Sean Parker (you may know him from 2010’s The Social Network, played by Justin Timberlake), acknowledges that Facebook is “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” He says, “I think that the inventors—me, Mark [Zuckerberg], Kevin Systrom at Instagram—understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.”

     “Exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” is, contrary to what some people think, not a win-win situation. I talked to one Fourth Former, Student D, who said, “I’m getting that sweet, sweet dopamine rush from scrolling on that feed, and they’re just getting my personal data. It’s not bad.” 

     He said this with a fair bit of irony, but, often, this argument is not a joke. How often do you hear people say they don’t really care how much data tech companies have about them?

     The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t represent the relationship that social media companies have with their users. These companies aren’t stalkers who pay for your “data” simply because they are interested in you. 

     “A lot of people have the misconception that it’s our data being sold. It’s not in Facebook’s business interest to give up the data,” said Sandy Parakilas, the former Operations Manager at Facebook. “They build models that predict our actions, and whoever has the best model wins.”

     What results is that Facebook and other tech companies can predict what will keep us scrolling, watching, and liking. The Center for Humane Technology, the nonprofit that Tristan Harris co-founded, made an alarming analogy to describe how social media companies keep you engaged.

     “Just like a tree is worth more as lumber and a whale is worth more dead than alive—in the attention extraction economy a human is worth more when we are depressed, outraged, polarized, and addicted,” Harris said.  

     Thus, it would make sense that social media algorithms recommend polarizing, unfactual content, thereby leading unsuspecting people to become entrenched in fake news. 

“I would watch commentary YouTubers, and a lot of them at the time we’re really on the right side of the spectrum. I would slowly dip farther to the right, more radical, worse, and worse until it got to the point where I realized where I was going, and I turned around.”

Student D ’23

     Student D said that in middle school, he fell down a rabbit hole of polarizing content on social media. Content that, as he described it, “radicalizes people.” 

     “I would watch commentary YouTubers, and a lot of them at the time we’re really on the right side of the spectrum,” Student D said. “I would slowly dip farther to the right, more radical, worse, and worse until it got to the point where I realized where I was going, and I turned around.”

     He would see content that was “blatantly anti-Semitic or racist” getting upwards of 50,000 likes, and he would see comments agreeing with the post.

     “Before, I really didn’t think there were that many people who believed in this stuff, but then you see how many people like it,” Student D said. “It’s really weird to think that that many people believe that [antisemitic and racist content].”

“I kind of just stepped back from social media in general and looked at the real world and observed that [the radical content] doesn’t make sense. Like, it’s stupid.”

Student D ’23

     Eventually, Student D realized the malice behind the content he was watching and managed to escape the rabbit hole, yet many people never get to this point—they descend further into the false content that social media platforms recommend to them, falsely believing they are finding the truth. So what did Student D do to get out of the rabbit hole and find the truth? 

     “I kind of just stepped back from social media in general and looked at the real world and observed that [the radical content] doesn’t make sense. Like, it’s stupid,” Student D said.

     It was necessary to step back from social media for Student D to free himself from misinformation. For Student B, it was necessary to delete some social media accounts to limit the time he spent on his phone. I wonder whether the rest of us should follow in their footsteps, freeing ourselves from the constant advertising, misinformation, and addiction to social media.

     I want to say yes. I want to declare, as I reach the end of this article, that everyone “get off of social media right now!” I want to remind you that our generation is more depressed than any other, that we are addicted, that we are polarized. 

     While all of this is true, it is also true that people will continue to use social media whether I like it or not, and they will do this because there are some truly positive sides to these platforms. And, in all honesty, I don’t plan on deleting my Instagram or Snapchat accounts in the near future either—the fear of being “left out” once I delete them is too great for me to seriously consider it. 

     I can’t tell you to delete your social media accounts (without being a hypocrite), but I will tell you to do something else: question social media. Question how meaningful it is. Question how it makes you feel. 

     Question everything.