Our Daily Dilemma

Adya SarinSeptember 7, 2021The Media That Raised UsMedia

We know social media is harmful, we know of the effects it has on our mental health, we know it is everything we are meant to stay away from, but do we ever take a minute to understand why?

The Social Dilemma is a documentary-style drama by Jeff Orlowski that, just like his other documentaries Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice, makes us question our own human capabilities to protect ourselves from a monster we have created. In this case: social media. I’ve always thought of social media as harmless when used mindfully, as something that can only have an effect on you if you let it. But, little did I know, it already has a profound effect on my daily life in nuanced ways I never could have spotted before watching this film. More than anything, this docudrama is eye-opening. It shows you a side of social media you probably didn’t even know existed.

The film starts off with interviews with former social media company workers, as they present to us the world of social media from their side, that of the creators. We then see social media presented to us from the point of view of a typical family and begin to see just how ingrained it is in our lives. These two simultaneous perspectives slowly build up to the same dilemma, when we begin to question how much control we have over social media, and in all sense of reality, how much control it has over us.

The film’s professional interviewees are made up of top executives from Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and various other websites that trick us into spending hours scrolling through them, just so they can sell our data, to eventually result in more time spent, more hours lost, more lives wasted.

In my opinion, the most striking interview would have been that with Justin Rosenstein, who co-invented the “like button.” In the beginning, he tries to justify his co-creation by saying the like button was originally intended to spread happiness and positivity, and I have no arguments against that, as it most definitely does so. But it’s an absence of happiness that begins to cause problems, as the button’s effects are like that of a drug. Users start to crave more of it, and the only way to get what they want is by changing how they look to gain attention and gain their likes. This drive to gain attention was represented rather realistically with a scene where a teenage girl uses filters to edit her face in order to gain the likes and comments she didn't get when she previously posted pictures of her unedited face. But when the negative comments start trickling in, she begins to worry she does not look good enough and wishes she looked the way she looked with those filters she had used. Such feelings are known as “Snapchat dysmorphia” because a majority of the content on the social media app Snapchat has gone through filters to color and saturate what would have been ordinary, non-filtered faces and lives.

As a matter of fact, this exposure to unrealistic beauty standards and air-brushed, glowing faces causes users to begin to focus on their flaws after seeing versions of themselves without them. According to 2017 data, over 55% of facial plastic surgeons say patients have requested cosmetic procedures to look better on social media, an increase of 13% from the year before. Furthermore, access to these filters and “flawless” versions of oneself at a young age trigger depression, social anxiety, and various other mental health issues in children as young as 12, resulting in actions as drastic as suicide and self-harm. This exposure to social media and a world without flaws has been presented in a rather harsh and bluntly realistic light in the film, almost making it seem as though the situations depicted have been exaggerated, whereas, in reality, it is the scenario that has been and will be faced by so many. I personally have been lucky enough to not have this affect me to an extreme level, but I definitely see it in my daily life as my own self-worth slowly crumbles after seeing people around me represented in such a different light on social media. I’m not denying the fact that filters are fun — it’s really exciting that you can have a unicorn horn or fairy wings on your camera — but when filters are used to change one’s face shape and air-brush one’s skin, it is bound to have negative repercussions, if not on you, then on those around you.

In my opinion, this film is insightful, to say the least; its depictions are eye-opening in a way that does not bombard the viewer with knowledge and advice. Instead, it allows us to form our own opinions. It is rather well-executed, with an even balance between the storyline and the interviews, keeping it engaging throughout. One aspect of it that may put off viewers is one’s own personal mindset on social media and its impact, as watching it with a stubborn mindset may not allow for a strong enough impact and leave the viewer uneasy. Furthermore, the events in the storyline have been dramatized immensely in order to influence the viewer, which felt slightly over the top at times. The filmmakers’ focus may have been to really get to the viewer and impact them, but as a viewer, it just reminded me that regardless of my being able to see traces of this world in my life, it was still a movie. The exaggerated dramatization just distances the real world from that shown on the screen.

The aspect of the film that impacted me the most as a first-time viewer would be the metaphors laced into its storyline. A social media user is shown to be controlled by external robots, symbols for the social media algorithm, depicting the algorithm designed in itself to be rather defined and one-sided, whereas, in reality, it is not. Nevertheless, this simple representation makes something as complex as algorithms and their effect on one’s social media usage rather simple to understand for ages as young as 10. However, I would not recommend this film for children below 12, as the events do get rather intense toward the end and the concept of social media may not be one they can relate to. On the other hand, teenagers might find it easier to empathize with the on-screen characters and develop a more profound impression and clearer understanding of the platforms that they probably use on a daily basis.

As for a rating, I would give this docudrama a 4.5/5, purely because of the impact it left on me as a social media user and quite forcefully made a difference in my own life and how I view such platforms now having watched it twice. I now put a conscious effort into how much I let social media affect me, constantly reminding myself that it is just the “best version” of oneself that is shown and I actually have no idea what is behind the screen. It’s also pushed me to be a lot more mindful about a) how much data I store on my phone and how much of myself I let leak into this virtual world and b) how much time I spend aimlessly scrolling through posts that will not have any productive or helpful effect on me.

Adya is a 14-year-old student at the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. You can normally find her reading a book or dancing. One of her favorite pastimes is playing with animals (especially her cat).