“Social Media is a drug”: The Social Dilemma explains the world of AI and its impact on Gen Z.

Paige Stanley, Editor-in-Chief

“The Social Dilemma” on Netflix is a documentary/actor-portrayed film that delves into the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how technology controls its users lives. The film interviews a dozen experts in the technology world who not only know the ins and outs of the internet, some of them even created the addictive algorithms. These experts express their regret for creating the addictive qualities of AI and why there is a need to regulate technology, especially for the general health and wellness of Generation Z.

The film centers on the idea that the user’s attention is the product being sold to create multibillion-dollar companies. Technology companies are striving for users to see ads because the better an ad does, the more money advertising companies pay the large tech companies. The film labels this control of content as manipulation and using psychology against users to make the most money, through tracking users interests and giving them the ads that they would be most likely to click on. The film switches from interviewing experts to a dramatization of actors portraying how technology is present in a family’s life. The teen boy’s phone is shown being controlled by three men leading the boy to be impacted by fake news groups and addicted to his phone. The controllers decide what notifications show up on his phone, which recommendations are given, monitor how long and what pictures he stops on, etc.

This portrayal depicts one of the largest issues of technology’s manipulation, the impact on Generation Z. As the first generation to have grown up having access to technology as young as elementary school, Gen Z has grown up being unable to step away from their devices for an extended period of time and more importantly being unable to develop their own opinions. One of the experts interviewed, Tristan Harris –Former Google Design Ethicist and Center for Human Technology Co-Founder – who is known as the conscience of Silicon Valley said: “It’s not just that its controlling where they spend their attention, especially social media starts to dig deeper and deeper down into the brain stem and take over a kid’s sense of self-worth and identity.”

Because younger generation have grown up with the internet, studies have found that they are “more anxious, fragile, depressed, less comfortable taking risks…” said Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, PhD.

When asked how she thought technology has impacted her generation, Senior Maggie Green said, “I think that with kids from a young age relying on social media without being able to recognize its addictive potential, it sets up a teenager for failure when they try to balance a constant media presence that’s expected with schoolwork and other activities.”

Green pointed out that when teenagers are sucked into this false reality, they have let go of living in the real world. As someone who monitors student behavior, Dean of Students, Mr. Stearns, said “A big part of being a teenager is discovering who you are. When social media dominates that experience, it can have some really scary implications.”

Media Literacy teacher, Mr. Danielson, takes this a step further when asked how the addictive/invasive qualities of technology are detrimental to students. He replied, “In a word, Focus. The adolescent brain needs to focus for extended periods of time for learning to become permanent.  Then the brain needs time to do something called “consolidation” of all the learning that happened that day. Usually this would happen at the end of the day and during sleep. But with constant interruptions from technology, the brain can never really rest and do the consolidating.  Consequently, memory retrieval is much more difficult, and learning becomes exhausting.”

The film is a warning of what could happen if there is no regulation of tech companies continuing to develop stronger AI. This development could lead to more manipulation of the political system, users’ actions, and privacy. Green agreed that law and policy need to be shaped in order to prevent the continued manipulation by these large tech companies who currently have no fiscal reason to change. Green adds that another solution to this problem is more awareness in parents and children alike of the harmful effects of social media and the internet.

This raises the question, what can users do in the meantime to avoid the manipulation and addiction. The experts in “The Social Dilemma” provide their views of how to combat this manipulation. While many say they do not allow their children to have technology, a more reasonable approach is turning off notifications, never giving into recommended content on social media platforms by instead always searching for something, lowering usage,  and following people with different viewpoints.

After watching the film, Green and Danielson admitted to monitoring their screen time. Stearns realized that after the movie, he immediately came up with reasons why he needs his social media contrary to his son immediately deleting his. This subconscious denial of the impact social media is having on him made Stearns realize, “upon reflection, that reaction scared me more than the movie itself.”

While it can be easy to monitor screen time and turn off notifications. Green pointed out what makes the Social Dilemma hard to comprehend right now. While it is clear to her after watching the documentary that changes needed to be made, “with the pandemic it is hard to feel connected without some form of social media interaction.”

With the pandemic, political polarization, and mental health at the forefront of society, Generation Z is currently at a turning point at how they can influence older generations as well as the ones that come after them. Because of their unique upbringing as the first generation to grow up around technology it is easy to give in to the Social Dilemma as it has been all they have known. As the film advises, AI will not solve this problem, users will.

Danielson points out Media Literacy has “Never been more important.” By learning the dangers of technology, how to step away from it, and what is needed to combat “The Social Dilemma”, Generation Z has a chance to reverse the trend of manipulation and addiction.