Netflix recently released the documentary The Social Dilemma, and boy is it a watch! For several years now I have been sceptical about social media, and the technologies behind them, but now my suspicions have been confirmed. Something needs to change. And fast.
I think most people I talk to have this general sense that too much social media is bad for you. Of course, we know too much of anything is a bad thing. But this documentary highlights how sinister it really can be…
TW: Self-Harm & Suicide
I could go on and on about the political ramifications, or the impact on the global economy, that the documentary highlights. But, neither of those things are relevant to this digital space, nor are any of my expertise. No, as a psychologist, I want to really hone in on what the film was saying about how it is impacting us as people. Our relationships, our mental health, and our sense of self-worth.
The documentary, while having the typical format of having experts sat down in various settings expressing their views on the subjects, follows the narrative of an American family. Two parents, three children. The oldest, a snarky young adult complaining about most things. The middle kid, a teenager who’s a bit of a joker. And then there is the youngest…
Around halfway through the film it focuses on the youngest child, a little girl who could be no older than 13. We see her throughout the film absolutely glued to the phone. At one point we see her even smashing open a locked box, after her mum had stashed the phone away during a family dinner. Very #relatable!
Something I found quite shocking (which really I shouldn’t have when thinking about this now) was the statistics that the documentary outlined around children’s rates of self-harm and suicide. Particularly in young girls. Whilst showing us a scene of how this young girl is impacted by negative comments left on a picture she uploads, we are soon to be greeted by Dr. Johnathan Haidt, a social psychologist from NYU.
He opens by talking about the general state of mental health in teenagers, bringing awareness to a spike in depression and anxiety amongst American youth. However, it is his outline of recent statistics for hospital admissions amongst young girls that really had my quite shook.
According to the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention), out of 100,000 teenage girls per year, there has been a 189% increase of self-harm incidences amongst 10-14 year old girls since 2009. Even more shocking? Deaths from suicide has also increased by 151% for 10-14 year old girls within the same time frame.
Of course this is specifically America statistics, and there is a lot to be said about how much of that sample is representative of the entire population. And we must remember that correlation does not equal causation. But still, to actually see this steady trend of increased mental health difficulties, particularly in our most vulnerable groups, that almost mirror the advent and rise of social media’s popularity… It’s just outstanding.
From my own journey recovering from depression and anxiety, I realise that some of my issues stemmed from this constant comparison of myself to others. This of course was facilitated by facebook, instagram, etc. I remember seeing all my friends posting how excited they were to go off to university, gaining approval to go their first choices, while I was deferring for a year because I just couldn’t handle it. It felt humiliating. Like I was nothing.
Now I limit the amount of social media I use. Of course it would be hypocritical of me to tell you that you shouldn’t use any social media whatsoever. I mean, I have a facebook page specifically for this website for heavens sake!
That said, there is something to be said about purposefully limiting yourself, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed. It might seem a little counter-productive at first. To shut yourself away from all this connection and socialising that many mental health advocates promote to combat depression and anxiety. But it’s not the same as real life. It’s not a replacement for real relationships.
My stance on social media is more complicated and nuanced than just ‘FACEBOOK IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF ALL EVIL!’. Sometimes catching up with old friends you can only contact via these methods is a good thing. Or finding joy in viewing digital art on Pinterest or Instagram. But I do urge you to reconsider the amount of time you are scrolling those feeds, or checking accounts during the day.
Being mindful about taking a mental break from constant stimulation will help you immensely in feeling better about yourself, being less anxious, and facing off any existential dread you are feeling. I’ve been there. I’ve been in the thick of it. I deleted a good load of apps from my phone, and got rid of some social media accounts altogether. It’s not a cure, but damn do I feel better!
The documentary gives you many more reasons as to why social media companies are slowly taking over the world, and making us think and believe things that aren’t true. But just from me to you, dear reader, I just want to say that your time and attention is much more valuable than you realise. Please put it back into looking after yourself, and the people you care about.