Netflix’s hit docudrama The Social Dilemma paints a dystopian picture of social media, arguing that Silicon Valley’s pervasive technology is now an existential threat to humanity. Having spent the past decade fine-tuning their now very smart algorithms, the brains behind Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, among the other dominant platforms, have got us hooked. With the average adult worldwide spending two hours a day on social media and the average American teenager spending up to nine hours a day, research estimates that social-media addiction now affects almost half a million people globally. But just how bad is social media for our mental health?
The film argues that social media is highly addictive and manipulatively designed based on what’s called an attention-extraction model to control our behavior and keep us scrolling and wanting more. In doing so, it exploits our human desire for the connection to and validation of others, giving us a dopamine hit every time we get a like or reply without ever actually fulfilling our deep human needs. This can lead, as the documentary argues, to a whole host of negative emotions, which drive us back to social media for that quick fix.
As such, social media becomes a kind of digital pacifier, a maladaptive coping strategy used whenever we feel lonely, uncomfortable, or sad. As argued by the film’s protagonist Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, this is a huge danger to our mental well-being—and it is only going to increase due to the lack of regulation in place for these companies.
Fear of the Unknown
While the documentary’s hyperbolic framing is compelling, the fear of new technologies is nothing unusual. “It is natural to be concerned about any new technology that reaches a certain level of popularity in society and so also to be concerned about social media,” Amy Orben, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Emmanuel College, tells Vogue. But are our concerns misplaced?
Mental illness rates in high-income countries are on the rise, and this is correlative with increased social-media use—but correlation does not necessarily equal causation. “The correlation between social media and mental health seems to be about the same as the correlation between eating potatoes and mental health: small and weak,” says Paul Marsden, a chartered psychologist in the cyberpsychology section of the British Psychological Society.
Orben offers a more nuanced interpretation, arguing that the relationship between mental health and social media is “complex, bidirectional, and individual. It is highly influenced by what we do on it and why we do it, not just the time we spend.” This latter interpretation explains why research on the subject is so mixed. Where some studies have found occasions when social-media use can contribute to poor mental health, others have found there to be no effect, while some have even found evidence to support the idea that it can improve mental health, possibly by reducing loneliness and improving self-esteem.
The Social Dilemma’s critique comes at an interesting time when more of us than ever are dependent on digital modes of connection. “Social media can wreak havoc with our confidence but can also keep us feeling less lonely and more connected,” explains Tabitha Goldstaub, chair of the U.K. government’s A.I. council and author of How to Talk to Robots: A Girls’ Guide to a Future Dominated by A.I. As many of us are forced to socially distance, we have found a lifeline in social media’s ability to keep us connected to our loved ones. In the absence of physical interaction, we have learned new virtual languages—sharing texts, memes, and emojis—with friends, family, and colleagues that can only serve to better our collective mental health.
COVID-19 aside, social media has been pivotal in connecting like-minded people. It has played a fundamental part in various forms of grassroots activism—Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement—that have caused some of the most substantial social changes we’ve seen in years.
In the same way, the growth of specific-interest online communities has had a positive impact on some people’s mental well-being. For example, research shows that social media can help marginalized teens—such as those who are neurodiverse or identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community—forge new social connections. “It can make us feel part of a global niche community that you’d never have been able to bond with in the same way pre–social media,” says Goldstaub. “The fact that people anywhere in the world can find someone to connect with is pretty magic.”
Certainly, more research is needed on the topic, but the consensus among most psychologists is that it’s not necessarily the social-media platforms themselves rather than the content we are consuming that has the biggest impact on our mental health. “We need to be attentive to certain types of content and certain individuals or times in our life where we are more susceptible to the negative influences of social media,” explains Orben. Indeed, we must be more critical when generalizing about social-media use: 20 minutes chatting with friends on Facebook Messenger is not the same as 20 minutes looking at distressing content.
Nature vs. Nurture
One of the most worrying effects of social media, as outlined in The Social Dilemma, is its negative impact on our body image. Research is relatively consistent in finding a correlation between this and social media, especially when consuming and engaging with appearance-focused content that promotes narrow societal beauty standards. In the documentary, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt highlights a strong correlation between the negative mental health of teenage girls and the adoption of smartphones.
But as Nadia Craddock, research fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research, argues, “the relationship really depends on the content we engage with and how we feel about our body before we use social media.” Which is to say, if you’re already predisposed to worrying about how you look—a result of genetics and social-environmental factors—staring at images of yourself and comparing them to curated influencer feeds is bound to exacerbate these anxieties.
Furthermore, given the nature of algorithms, the more you visit these feeds, the more the platforms will recommend more of the same feeds to you. This leads to an echo-chamber effect, where we constantly compare ourselves to our news feeds of filtered influencers, thinking this is what everyone else in the world looks like. In actuality, we are just stuck in an algorithm designed to show us what it thinks we’ll be interested in—and without anyone there to regulate it.
In this sense, The Social Dilemma presents an over-sensationalized generalization of social media’s negative impact when its relationship with mental health is actually more nuanced. In an increasingly digitized world, and particularly now as we are social distancing, social media has become a vital lifeline to stay connected, and its use will likely increase in the future.
That said, while they cannot be held solely responsible for poor mental health across the board, these platforms can have a negative impact on those with preexisting vulnerabilities and particularly those with body-image issues. So how can we protect ourselves and those most vulnerable from the negative impact of these platforms?
Remaining in Control
“Remember you are in control of how you use social media, how long you spend [on it], and what you consume and engage with,” says Craddock. Increasing our media literacy, raising awareness of how we use social media and how it operates, and curating our feeds around positive content are all strategies we can use to protect our mental well-being. “If you’re conscious that each of us is accessing a version of social media that has been curated to drive us to take particular actions, you can upset these algorithms by actively seeking alternative sources of news, following people and brands you wouldn’t usually,” explains Goldstaub. “You have a lot more power over the algorithms than you think—don’t let your bubble define you.”
Ultimately, though, action needs to be taken at a legislative level. What The Social Dilemma gets right is its call for change. As Harris notes toward the end of the film, as it currently stands, social-media companies believe they can fix the problems they’ve created with more data and algorithms. But what these companies really need is to have increased regulation and enforced laws around how they use their technology so that they operate more ethically, promoting positive behaviors and mental well-being over negative ones.
At the same time, we should be wary of scaremongering and clickbait articles on how social media is affecting our mental health (which you’re ironically probably reading after someone shared it on social media). Focusing solely on social media as the root cause of mental illness and creating panic around it can result in, as Marsden argues, “shifting the focus away from the long list of underlying causes of mental ill-health, such as major adverse life events, abuse, conflict, poverty, inequality, lack of life chances, and substance abuse.”
And until we address those, the effects of social media on our mental health are much less significant. Marsden concludes: “Perhaps social media is in fact a mirror that reflects the good and bad in society. Let us not mistake the reflection for the cause.”