Second Thoughts about the Social Dilemma

Watched “The Social Dilemma” yet? I did, a few months ago. The Netflix documentary sets off all kinds of alarms about social media and how it’s twisting the very fabric of our society. It’s a mix of standard documentary fodder — a lot of tell-all interviews with industry insiders and activists — with an (ill-advised, in my opinion) dramatization of the effects of social media addiction in one particular family.

The one most affected is a male teenager who is suddenly drawn, zombie-like,by his social media feed into an ultra-polarized political activist group. Behind the scenes, operating in a sort of evil-empire control room setting, there are literally puppet masters pulling his strings.

It’s scary as hell. But should we be scared? Or — at least — should we be that scared?

Many of us are sounding alarms about social media and how it nets out to be a bad thing. I’m one of the worst. I am very concerned about the impact of social media, and I’ve said so many, many times in this column. But I also admit that this is a social experiment playing out in real time, so it’s hard to predict what the outcome will be. We should keep our minds open to new evidence.

I’ve also said that younger generations seem to be handling this in stride. At least, they seem to be handling it better than those in my generation. They’re quicker to adapt and to use new technologies natively to function in their environments, rather than fumble as we do, searching for some corollary to the world we grew up in.

I’ve certainly had pushback on this observation. Maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe, like so many seemingly disastrous new technological trends before it, social media may turn out to be neither bad nor good. It may just be different.

That certainly seems to be the case if you read a new study from the Institute for Family Studies at Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution.  

One of the lead authors of the study, Jean Twenge, previously rang the alarm bells about how technology was short-circuiting the mental wiring of our youth. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” she made this claim:

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

The article describes a generation of zombies mentally hardwired to social media through their addiction to their iPhone. One of the more startling claims was this:

“Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.”

Again, scary as hell, right? This sounds frighteningly familiar to the scenarios laid out in ““The Social Dilemma.”  

But what if you take this same group and this same author, fast-forward three years to the middle of the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, and check in with over 1,500 teens to see how they’re doing in a time where they have every right to be depressed? Not only are they locked inside, they’re also processing societal upheavals and existential threats like systemic racial inequality, alt-right political populism and climate change. If 2017-2018 was scary for them, 2020 is a dumpster fire.

Surprisingly, those same teens appear to be doing better than they were two years ago. The study had four measures of ill-being: loneliness, life dissatisfaction, unhappiness and depression.  The results were counterintuitive, to say the least. The number of teens indicating they were depressed actually dropped substantially, from 27% in 2018 to 17% who were quarantined during the school year in 2020. Fewer said they were lonely as well. 

The study indicated that the reasons for this could be because teens were getting more sleep and were spending more time with family.

But what about smartphones and social media? Wouldn’t a quarantined teen (a Quaran-teen?) be spending even more time on his or her phone and social media? 

Well, yes – and no. The study found screen time didn’t really go up, but the way that time was spent did shift. Surprising, time spent on social media went down, but time spent on video chats with friends or watching online streaming entertainment went up. 

As I shared in my column a few weeks ago, this again indicates that it’s not how much time we spend on social media that determines our mental state. It’s how we spend that time. If we spend it looking for connection, rather than obsessing over social status, it can be a good thing. 

Another study, from the University of Oxford, examined data on more than 300,000 adolescents and found that increased screen time has no more impact on teenager’s mental health than eating more potatoes. Or wearing glasses.

If you’re really worried about your teen’s mental health, make sure they have breakfast. Or get enough sleep. Or just spend more time with them. All those things are going to have a lot more impact than the time they spend on their phone.

To be clear, this is not me becoming a fan of Facebook or social media in general. There are still many things to be concerned about. But let’s also realize that technology — any technology– is a tool. It is not inherently good or evil. Those qualities can be found in how we choose to use technology. 

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