Our social dilemma
Senior Project Manager, TELUS Wise
Have you ever picked up your smartphone to do something quick, like send a text or check the weather, but instead find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Instagram or other social media feeds for far too long? For many of us, this happens all too frequently and there appears to be an explanation.
The Social Dilemma, a new documentary on Netflix, explores the effect of social media on human behaviour and provides a look into the calculated features and complex algorithms of social networking platforms that keep us glued to our devices and coming back for more.
Referencing a phrase you may have heard before, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” the documentary showcases how social media giants are competing for our attention (and data) and explores the dangerous, long term consequences and related ethical considerations around addiction and mental health.
The documentary explains how social media platforms serve up dopamine hits on demand, in a way that is similar to slot machines. Dopamine, the feel-good hormone often associated with addiction, is released by our brains when we exercise, have sex, eat something tasty or engage in enjoyable social interactions - including social interactions online. Capitalizing on the physiological gratification and our inherent social nature, social media features and notifications about friend requests, likes, comments and so on, prompt us to check our phones because the social interaction actually feels good. The issue is that, for many, the dependency on this gratification becomes habit forming.
In 2018, the World Health Organization classified “gaming disorder” - the impaired control over online gaming - as a behavioural addiction. The verdict is still out on when or whether social media will become classified in the same way, but what we do know is that our relationship and dependency on social media and tech is related to our physical, social and emotional wellbeing.
Researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children recently reported that smartphones and social media are contributing factors in the increase in mental health issues reported by youth, and that “social media can affect adolescents’ self-view and interpersonal relationships”. Children are growing up in a society where they spend less time interacting and communicating with their friends face-to-face and more time using social media, (and gaming and texting) and The Social Dilemma draws a linkage between the rise in popularity of social media and the rise of mental health issues among American youth.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t benefits to living in our digital world. We know that social media has taken a central role in our lives - serving as a source of entertainment, information (or misinformation) and a means to connect with others near and far - but as with anything in life, we need to achieve a balance and have control over our technology use. The thought provoking documentary closes with the former tech employees, who feature prominently in the documentary, sharing their own advice for curbing our appetite for social media. Here are some tips we’ve compiled to support and reinforce the dialogue:
- Turn off notifications: Notifications can come in many forms - be it icons, banners and badges with or without sound - and these trigger our urge to connect to tech. If you are not ready to disable notifications cold turkey, turn on the Do Not Disturb feature, found on most smartphones, to prevent distracting notifications while you’re working, sleeping or spending quality time with family and friends.
- Manage screen time: Limiting daily screen time, or more importantly, prioritizing nourishing screen use (e.g. Facetime with your family) over depleting screen use (e.g. endless social media scrolling) can help improve your overall mood and wellbeing. Most critical is refraining from screen use at least 30-60 minutes before bed to improve your ability to fall asleep and enhance your overall quality of sleep.
- Be mindful: When picking up your device, take a moment to pause and be intentional about the task at hand. When you pause before divulging in social media or other tech habits, you take the time to choose for yourself what your relationship with tech will be versus reacting to the habit. A unique but effective idea to help with this might be to add an elastic band to your smartphone. Everytime you pick up your device it will cause you to pause, giving you a moment to think about what you plan to do.
- Organize yourself and get creative: Consider reorganizing your smartphone’s home screen and placing your troublesome or time consuming apps, like social media or gaming apps, in a folder that you only access at certain times of the day (for example, after work hours). Also, knowing our eyes are drawn to colourful icons, you may wish to change your device screen to grayscale to lessen the temptation to check these apps. And of course, you can always be bold and delete those apps you no longer wish to consume your time!
- Limit the spread of misinformation: While the Internet is a great resource for bringing like minded individuals together, it can easily lead to misinformation, conspiracy theories and even propaganda - again due largely to our urge to share on social media and receive the gratification of social interactions with others. Before sharing information use fact-checking tools like Snopes.com, verifying the source and checking other sources to validate what you’re thinking about sharing.
Ironically, many people are taking to social media to encourage others to watch The Social Dilemma and change the way they use technology. Irony aside, reflecting on our social media habits is a good suggestion, and we encourage you to go a step further by taking time to reflect with your family on what else you can do to stay in control of your relationship with tech.
At the end of the day, social media can be a wonderful tool, but it’s critical for us to be mindful of our relationship with technology and the impact it can have on us. Learn more about how you can build and maintain a healthy relationship with technology with the TELUS Wise happiness workshop. Check it out at telus.com/WiseWorkshops.