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4 Scary Concepts from Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’ That Every Parent Should Understand

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The Social Dilemma, a new Netflix documentary, is a frightening look at how social media is impacting us as individuals and as a society. According to some of the visionaries behind the creation of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and other popular social media platforms, social media can do good—but it also has the potential to wreak havoc on our lives and our planet.

Moreover, social media for teens is actually changing their brains, say the technology and psychology experts interviewed for the documentary. Addiction to social media is one of the biggest topics addressed by The Social Dilemma, and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the dopamine high produced by constant scrolling and notifications.

Here are four concepts described in The Social Dilemma that highlight the negative effects of social media on teenagers.

1. Persuasive Technology

This phrase refers to the ultimate goal of the artificial intelligence (AI) that powers social media. By tracking users’ every click, social media AI (which is embodied in the documentary by actor Vincent Kartheiser) “learns” what posts, articles, and videos they’re most likely to respond to. Hence, their feeds are customized to persuade them to keep scrolling longer, so they will view more ads, invite more friends, and generate more money for the platforms and their advertisers. Furthermore, notifications—for example, the alert that’s generated when a user is tagged in a photo—keep teens glued to their phones, without realizing that their behavior is being manipulated.

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”

—Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Yale University

2. Fake Popularity

“Fake, brittle popularity,” in the words of Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former VP of growth, is one of the biggest negative effects of social media on teenagers. Teens place great value on the short-term rewards (hearts, likes, thumbs up), but receiving these superficial recognitions leave them feeling “even more vacant and empty” than before, he says. The never-ending search for online approval has become a pervasive form of social media pressure that “starts to dig deeper and deeper down into the brain stem and take over kids’ sense of self-worth and identity,” states Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology.

3. Snapshot Dysmorphia

This new mental health issue is an outgrowth of the insidious link between social media and body image. Because social media is so focused around appearance, it triggers body dysmorphia in teens, especially girls. In response to the unrealistic standards of beauty perpetuated by social media, adolescents become hyper-conscious and hyper-critical of one or more of their physical features. In the documentary, a dramatization shows a young adolescent becoming fixated on her perceived defects after she posts a selfie and one of her friends makes a comment about her ears.

4. Digital Pacifier

The Social Dilemma points to growing evidence that teens, as well as adults, have lost the ability to calm and soothe themselves with real-world reflection, activities, and relationships. Instead, they deal with challenging emotions by turning to social media for distraction and entertainment. This is another way in which addiction to social media takes hold and draws teens away from more enriching experiences. “A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, and more depressed,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, PhD, says in the documentary, commenting on the exponential rise in teen mental health conditions and suicide since 2010, when social media and smartphones become prevalent.

What We Can Learn from The Social Dilemma

When it comes to social media for teens, the experts in The Social Dilemma recommend some practical ways to discourage addiction to social media.

  • 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.
  • Turn off all social media notifications.
  • Make sure teens understand the ways in which they are being manipulated by social media.
  • 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 high school.

Ultimately, this important documentary on social media has the potential to create greater awareness among people of all ages about the dangers of the technology that connects us. However, The Social Dilemma ends on an optimistic note, with the hope that public pressure will catalyze new regulations and influence tech companies to better protect the young people who use their products.

Social Media Addiction and Newport Academy

Teen social media addiction is often the result of underlying issues, such as chronic stress, anxiety, or childhood trauma, that drive the overuse of technology. When a teen is feeling depressed or anxious, they may use screen time to numb or distract from the discomfort or pain they’re feeling in real life. Hence, treatment at Newport Academy includes unplugging from phones and social media to reawaken teens’ real-life environments, forming strong friendships, reconnecting with nature, and exploring creative offline activities.

If your child is suffering from the negative effects of social media on teenagers, do not hesitate to reach out to Newport Academy for assessment and advice. Contact us today to learn more about our teen treatment for addiction to social media and for the depression and anxiety that often go hand in hand with the overuse of technology.


Clin Psych Sci. 2017;6(1):3–17.
Sci Rep. 2017;7:45064.

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