Voxel Hub was built on a few core values that I aspire to. Critical thinking is one of them. I will be honest: the recent popularity of the Social Dilemma docudrama was quite testing for me. I generally have a positive bias toward technology, but I am not naive. It’s not easy to be a parent, educator or mental health professional in the digital age. Most people who discuss mental health challenges these days will sooner or later mention social media. But…we all have a considerable challenge. There is actually hardly any good, solid science and guidance about the digital wellbeing of young people. We have spent decades raising and educating children based on myths and assumptions, not facts. I am not sure how in 2020, especially when social and digital connections are so vital, the movie is helping this situation.
The last decade for me was all about researching and informing myself on the topic of the actual, measurable and proven impact of social media on young people, especially. After years of looking for evidence and talking to professionals on both sides: in technology and the mental health world, I realised that the situation is nowhere near as bad as the mainstream media and general discourse paints it to be. It is, however, very nuanced. We do not know much yet, but what we do know is that most young people are OK with social media and other digital landscapes. Let me repeat this – most young people ARE OK. (Notice – when you read this statement, do you agree with me? If not, do you see evidence of the contrary in your family or your daily life? Do most young people you know suffer specifically from social media use?)
Generally, what young people bring to online spaces tends to get amplified (not just through algorithms mentioned in the movie, but through basic human networks and sources young people decide to follow and connect with). The more resilient and well-connected individuals are perfectly capable of managing their online activities well and continuing living and studying well too. The young people who are marginalised, vulnerable, disconnected or abused offline might experience more negative experiences online and struggle to ask for help. What seems to be happening is that social media spaces are reflecting our offline activities; we see more of our humanity online, though. It is, of course, quite overwhelming. But of course, even those statements are simplified – there is no golden rule, and our experiences are individual. What we do see, though, is that problematic behaviours, addictive behaviours and other negative experiences are mostly a function of young people’s lives – which in mental health language means a “result” of something going on elsewhere.
So what really is going on for young people? Well, where do I start….
- global pandemic (one which scientists predicted but we conveniently chose to ignore and continue to be surprised by),
- climate change grief,
- polarised societies and networks,
- results-driven education with tired and underpaid teachers,
- underfunded health and mental health care,
- a competitive and exploitative economy with unpredictable prospects,
- parents and carers who might be abusive might not care or find it OK to create a digital footprint of their children (even monetise it) sometimes from the time before kids are even born
- add to it the challenges of growing up and figuring out your way in a world that no longer has access to the more experienced elderly and in which parents are too tired or too poor to spend time with their kids.
I could continue…It isn’t easy to feel disempowered just reading this… and yet, most young people are OK because they have those new technologies to connect, to mingle, to play together, to study and to collaborate. Some even build global movements…
I will be honest; I did not want to publish anything on the topic of the Social Dilemma – because the movie deeply upsets me. I personally do not think the movie brings anything new to the dialogue on this topic. I think for already vulnerable young people, it is potentially quite damaging (imagine an abusive parent watching it?). It’s a good argument that was really badly made on a platform (Netflix) which in itself is algorithmic – the very mechanism the film is hoping to oppose. It contains interviews of professionals who cannot manage digital tools well themselves and who draw very weak conclusions between serious topics like suicide or self-harm and the increase in the popularity of digital – without much proof of a specific correlation between the two. It is made to be seen as a documentary but is named a “docudrama”, which allows for dramatisation – and that can be misleading.
As I said, the main argument, the point about advertising and behaviour predictions without legal regulation, is important, but work is already being done in this area. And let’s face it; behaviour prediction is not new – we did the same on TV, radio and other forms of advertising. The core message was diluted and thus allowed Facebook to come back with a valid and general dismissive response and simply carry on.
However, I have received many requests from concerned mental health professionals and parents about the impact social media and movie has on the young people they work with. I am a small voice in a huge ocean of opinions, so instead of listening to mine, what I can do is share a long list of resources and links to consider before watching the movie to get a fuller, richer and more informed perspective on the topic. Yes, it’s much easier to watch a short movie on Netflix, but if you really want to support young people, please make time for this. This is important.
If you need tips on how to talk to young people about the movie and generally about social media, sign up for my newsletter – I have adjusted my plans and will send out some tips this month.
I hope you will form your own opinion – I hope it will be critical, individual, nuanced and informed. Good luck, and do let me know – I am aware of my own bias, so I would love to hear more from you.
UPDATE: Since the creation of this, a new (this time actual documentary) movie was made on the topic, which is critical and to the point – if you want to reflect on the experience of watching both, here is it: “Coded Bias” on Netflix.
Social Dilemma – list of alternative resources
Social Dilemma film reviews:
Cyberpsychology film reviews:
Reviews – in mixed order for various perspectives:
Other things to consider:
People and projects to follow:
https://twitter.com/Livingstone_S – Sonia Livingstone
https://twitter.com/OrbenAmy – Amy Orben
https://twitter.com/ShuhBillSkee – Andrew Przybylski
https://twitter.com/zephoria – Danah Boyd
http://globalkidsonline.net/eu-kids-online/ – EU Kids Online study
https://www.commonsensemedia.org/ – CommonSense Media
Other movies to reflect on actual social dilemmas we are facing:
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2085059/ – Black Mirror – small aspects of tech that could go very badly wrong, so we need to choose wisely
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6017756/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 – Radioactive – the real dilemma of scientific innovation, open source, ethics of innovation
https://www.imdb.com/find?q=Blade+runner&ref_=nv_sr_sm – Blade Runner – human vs AI, relationships, choices
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1219827/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 – Ghost in the Shell – consent, identity, who owns us and our environment?
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2209764/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_25 – Transcendence – how far can we take the tech innovation? what is ethical?
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2872732/?ref_=tt_sims_tt – Lucy – content, identity, blurred boundary between real and virtual
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0 – Matrix – who owns the “code”, who is in charge of our lives – is tech really the problem or people who own and regulate it?
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4122068/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0 – Humans – especially Season 2 – great metaphor on racism, diversity and many aspects of humanity, a great showcase of complex choice making
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4736550/?ref_=tt_sims_tt – the Great Hack – what could and did go wrong and what do we need to change it