The Social Dilemma – How Big Tech is Digitally breaking our teenagers


There was a great deal of professional curiosity surrounding the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. However, I had not got around to seeing it until a few weeks ago. Once I was done I was left stunned on how deeply rooted some of the issues highlighted were and how relevant it was even in a Sri Lankan context. 

Social Media giants like Facebook, would have you believe that their inventions are the best thing the world has seen since sliced bread. To be fair there is some strong evidence to show for that also; They have connected us globally while making the world a smaller place, they have brought people together of similar interests and helped catalyze key social movements that have helped millions. 

Regrettably, documentaries such as ‘The Social Dilemma’ shed light on more ominous aspects, of how much of our lives are being governed. Rather how our lives are highjacked, by complex algorithms primed to ensure that you are glued to your device. No demographic proves this fact more obvious than a teenager’s behaviour with their smart devices. Ask any parent of a teenager and they come up the same story, “…they are always on the phone” “…I think they are addicted to their phones…” “…they are always on (Social Network Name) …”              

But the problem is far deeper than we can ever imagine, physiological research has found that social media for teens is actually changing their brains. Willfully and methodically these young minds are being eroded, weakened, and manipulated by Big tech. Let us take a few examples of how Social Media negatively influences teens. 

Brittle Popularity – A Dopamine hit  

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Chamath Palihapitiya, Former VP of Growth at Facebook, noted that social media is damaging to teenagers due to the false sense of popularity it gives (Image credits: Techcrunch)

“…Fake Brittle Popularity” that’s how Chamath Palihapitiya, Former VP of Growth at Facebook, notes as one of the most damaging aspects of social media on a teenager. The false sense of popularity and the inflation it gives on the Petri dish of social media. As a result, they’re constantly searching for the next “like” or “share” laced with that sweet hit of dopamine. 

As a parent, one of your main concerns would be your teenager getting hooked on drugs or other addictive substances. But it appears that social media companies have already made that fear come to life with their dopamine filled feeds that keep teens hooked looking for validation and fake popularity.     

Persuasive Technology – Your teen is an AI’s puppet.  

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A quote by Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Yale University (Image credits: Ensemble Magazine)

Persuasive Technology was a term that B.J. Fogg coined while conducting his graduate work at Sandford University in the 1990s. It’s broadly defined as a technology that is designed to alter attitudes and behaviours of users through social influence and persuasion (This can at times be coercive depending on the personality type). Meaning that there is a highly complex algorithm that’s studying social media users. 

The algorithm tracks, scores and monitors every post they interact with. While the data collection aspect is ongoing the AI ‘learns’ and ‘understands’ user behaviour identifying types of content that they would most likely engage. This is then taken as a feedback loop to tweak and tinker social media feeds. In doing so, keeping them addictive and engaging for longer periods of time. Interestingly this modus operandi is very similar to how drug cartels get their users addicted to their products. 

Snapchat Dysmorphia – The Fake Self 

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Increasingly, cosmetic surgeons are getting requests by patients to look like their digital personas. Created through filters on apps like Snapchat and Instagram, these are unrealistic and unattainable ideals. (Image credits: The Fashion Studies Journal)

This refers to the phenomenon of people requesting procedures to resemble their digital image, this term was introduced by Dr. Tijion Esho, a cosmetic doctor based in London. He noticed that his patients (especially younger ones) bringing pictures of their digital selves (i.e. Snapchat filtered images) wanting to look the “same” way in real life. “..This was an unrealistic and unattainable thing” the Dr. noted. 

Later studies have found that this phenomenon has now ballooned into a fresh disorder known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). It causes teens (especially girls) to believe that either parts or their entire body is “ugly” spending hours focusing on what’s “wrong” with their look. 

Teens with this disorder become delusional about their self-perceived defects. They are convinced that the body part is so ugly and overpowering that it’s the only thing that others can see. When they speak to their friends, they may be sure their friends are staring at their hideous features. Reassurances don’t seem to appease these fears. This results in fractured body image issues, low self-esteem and in extreme cases depression.    

Digital Pacifiers – Calm me only through social media 

 ‘The Social Dilemma’ also points to growing evidence that teens, as well as some adults, have lost their ability to be calm and soothe themselves in real-world situations, relationships or real-life activities. Instead, opting to drown themselves in social media for serenity rather than connecting with real-world things. “A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile and more depressed,” says social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who noted a rise in mental health conditions and suicide among US teens.

But What can you do? 

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The Social Dilemma’ ultimately is a great eye-opener to create more awareness of these hidden issues facing our young people. It’s hard enough just being a teenager without the added trials and tribulations of fending off complex algorithms trying to tear down your self-esteem, confidence and perhaps at times even your sanity. 

So, what can be done, as a parent you can start by having an open (offline) discussion with your teenager. In doing so, helping them understand the dangers of excessive social media and social media addiction. Additionally, here a few practical rules you can follow: – 

  • Create an agreement with your teen about how much time they will spend online. 
  • Establish a “house rule” that everyone turns off devices at a designated time before bed.
  •  Encourage them to Turn off all social media notifications. 
  • Make sure teens understand the ways in which they are being manipulated by social media. (Watch the ‘The Social Dilemma’ with them)
  •  Encourage teens to do research before sharing posts or videos to make sure they’re not spreading fake news. 
  • Keep children off social media as long as possible, ideally until Advanced Level or later.   
The Social Dilemma – How Big Tech is Digitally breaking our teenagers 3
To learn more on the topic catch Randima Fernando on the 5th of December

Technology will always be omnipresent in our lives. The teens that are growing up today with tech would be the first “always connected” generation. That fact itself would bring about many disruptions as well as opportunities to make the world a better place. Yet, in that journey, we must be mindful that our digital devices don’t drain out the battery of our sanity. 


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