Have you ever scrolled through Facebook and noticed an ad for an item that you had recently Googled? What about an item you had texted someone about? Or had a conversation about? Or even just thought about?
Have you ever wondered how those companies knew to show you that ad? It’s because your social media told them to.
Social media sites are able to gather enough information about you to be able to predict what you are likely searching for, thinking about, and interested in. Then they use those predictions to sell ads to companies based on how likely you are to stop what you’re doing and interact with the ad. Your time and your attention are for sale to the highest bidder.
This monetization tactic is one of the many morally questionable schemes discussed in The Social Dilemma, a “documentary-drama hybrid that explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.”
The critically acclaimed film features interviews with tech moguls and Silicon Valley icons including former top executives from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other addictive social media platforms. Viewers also hear from behavior specialists, psychologists, internet researchers, and other scholars.
The message that I found particularly striking came from one of the main interviewees, Tristan Harris, as he spoke about some of the thoughts he had while working as a Design Ethicist at google.
Never before in history have 50 designers, 20- to 35-year old white guys in California, made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people. Two billion people will have thoughts that they didn’t intend to have because a designer at Google said “This is how notifications work on that screen that you wake up to in the morning.” -Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma
None of us want to believe that we are being controlled by our phones or by our social media apps, but the reality is that we are. A 2019 study found that the average user touches their phone 2,617 times a day, and 87% of smartphone users check their phone within an hour of waking or going to sleep.
In the film, Dr. Anna Lembke, Medical Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, unabashedly states that “social media is a drug.”
There is no doubt that a vehicle like social media, which optimizes connections between people, is going to have the potential for addiction. -Dr. Anna Lembke, The Social Dilemma
And it’s not just the technology that we are addicted to. It’s what the technology allows us to do, who it allows us to talk to, and what it allows us to learn. But how often do we question the information we are shown through the lens of a business that is fully funded by advertisers?
The influencers that are recommended to us, the news stories we are shown, even the friends we see updates from are all controlled by algorithms and advertisements. I’ve recently found myself scrolling through my feed and wondering why I no longer see updates from certain people, or pausing on an ad that is featuring a product I wanted to try.
I’ve even become cognizant of the fact that everyone in my news feed seems to think the same way I do about recent political, social, and climatological events despite knowing that some of my friends and family are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from myself. It’s easy to become addicted when the world in your screen resembles the world as you wish it was rather than as it actually is.
I’m sure many of us are of the mindset that “I’m not addicted to my phone (social media, technology, etc.), I can stop using it whenever I want to, I just don’t want to.” And for some people that may be true, but for most of us, willpower alone is not enough to break us free from the hold that technology has on us.
Even the geniuses behind some of the most addictive apps, who know exactly how this technology works and why it is so enticing, found themselves falling under the sway of the scroll, unable to break free without assistance.
I actually had to write myself software to break my addiction to reading Reddit. -Aza Raskin, The Social Dilemma
This type of addiction can lead to unhealthy relationships with technology, society, and ourselves. There are lots of ways to help counteract these issues, like limiting the amount of time spent on social media apps and technology in general. Many smart phones have the option to set pre-determined time limits for various apps and will let you know when you are approaching and have reached said limits.
Another option is to specify times and places where you will not use your phone or mobile device. Buy an alarm clock and leave your phone out of the bedroom, don’t reach for your phone every time you need a bathroom break, keep it in your back pocket while driving a car, etc.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is turning off notifications if they aren’t imperative. Notifications are literally a reminder to log in to an app and devote your attention to a screen rather than the world around you. Turn off everything that you don’t need to see right now, and check in on your social media when you feel like it, rather than when it tells you to. (And if you find that there’s a platform or two that you’ve completely forgotten to check without notifications, maybe just delete it.)