Updated: Oct 10, 2020
It took me three attempts to make it all the way through The Social Dilemma, the new documentary/drama on Netflix about the downsides of social media. I found it depressing, disturbing, but most of all, frustrating. The film has two over-arching themes—social media is hopelessly addictive and we are helpless victims whose behavior is being tracked in order to sell us products and information. This dire message is delivered primarily by former employees of tech companies like Facebook and Google who admit to being at least partly responsible for the technology they spend 90 minutes wringing their hands over. It’s rather like listening to the person who invented the toothbrush admit that using it will eventually make all your teeth fall out. Sure that sounds a bit dramatic, but you get my point.
All of this aside, I’m glad I finally watched the entirety of The Social Dilemma and I hope you, and your family, will too. But when you do, please keep the following in mind:
No new news here. This big dilemmas spotlighted in this documentary are not new. I wrote about them in great detail in my book, as have others. Several of the tech industry insiders in the film have been talking about these problems for years, yet not much has changed. If anything, things have only gotten worse. Certainly a documentary with dramatizations like this one expresses the urgency of these problems like no other medium can, but I suspect any family with a preteen or teenager at home does not need the dramatizations, they need solutions.
Where are the solutions? It isn’t until the film's credits are halfway through that that the tech insiders offer some tepid recommendations most of us have heard before: delete notifications, never select the video recommended to you on YouTube, fact-check before you share, make sure you get lots of different information, keep devices out of the bedrooms at night, and no social media until high school. This last recommendation is notable, several of the technologists admit they are basically “zealots” about not letting their own kids have any screen time at all.
What about education? Taking technology away from kids is not an effective long-term solution in our view. Even kids who delete apps after watching this film will probably use them again once the fear induced by this film wears off. There is a better solution: education. Yet the subject of education never comes up in the film.
We know that teaching digital literacy to kids works. We’ve been doing it for over a decade now, through Cyber Civics (our middle school digital literacy curriculum) and we’ve seen what happens when students learn about algorithms, filter bubbles, media misinformation, addictive technologies, the true price of “free” information, and more. Our research assistant tracked down some of our early students, who are now young adults, to find out how they use technology today, and here is her assessment:
I discovered two big differences between these students and others of my generation. First, they understand how to use the internet efficiently and in positive ways, and are more aware of the kinds of mistakes that could harm their digital reputations. Second, unlike many others of our generation, none seem to be slaves to their devices.
What about using media in positive ways? Imagine a world with coronavirus and no technology or social media. How would we stay connected to friends, family, and loved ones? How would we educate quarantined children without Zoom, Google Classroom, or Skype? What about marginalized or underserved communities who rely on technology to access free tools or educational content? Think of the positive social movements worldwide that have benefitted from members being able to collaborate or organize online.
As a teacher now delivering Cyber Civics via Zoom, I do a little happy dance inside every time a student who never has the nerve to raise a hand in class, uses the chat box to answer a question or express an opinion.
It's Up To Us Folks
Our job as parents and educators is to teach youth how to use tools ethically, safely, productively, and in moderation. Remember, no matter how scary or omnipotent technology is made out to be in this film, it is still just a tool. Students must learn how (and that they can) exert self-determination over their tools. We cannot afford to wait for the platforms to fix themselves, change their business model, or for government legislation to magically happen. Education is the only solution that will solve this social dilemma.
So, parents, keep these points in mind as you watch the film with your kids. Talk about it afterwards, ask their opinion. And listen. That’s what we’re doing with our students. In fact, here is an exchange my colleague Peter Kelley just had with one of his 7th grade students:
Hi Mr. Kelly,