The world is in its Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and an international pandemic. If people weren’t already consumed by digital technology and smart devices before, they certainly are now. With roughly 4 billion people active and engaging with various social media platforms, it begs to ask the question, ‘what kind of impact do these digital platforms have and are we simply untested guinea pigs of these technologies?’

The Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’ focuses on how large social media companies manipulate users by using algorithms that encourage them to stay online and get addicted to their platforms. It highlights how our society finds itself as a product in the ‘attention economy’ where big names like Facebook, Amazon and Google, compete for our time on their sites in an egotistical race to dominate the market and have the ultimate power of influence.

In short, the documentary brings to light some interesting notions:

  • Social Networks know what our brains ‘like’; the creators of apps, games, gambling- know what gives our brain dopamine hits and they know how to use them to hook us onto their platforms.
  • Social networks collect and use our data; in order to predict what we are likely to click on, hover over, watch, ‘like’ or share. This allows them to use target advertising.
  • Misinformation and fake news can’t be controlled; not being able to distinguish between ‘real’ news and fake news is a threat to individuals and society. That, and having heavily curated feeds, renders us unlikely to make our own critical, unbiased opinions and decisions.
  • When the product is free, you become the product; by using and freely downloading apps onto our devices, we ‘buy’ into the business model and become the product as we go on to sharing it and using it to engage with others.

While these concerns and concepts of becoming the product are worrisome, particularly for generation Z, is this really a new concept?

After watching the documentary, I began thinking about the different phases of my own life and the nature of external influences over time. During a Home Economics class in Primary school, we were encouraged to create designs for household food items, such as a cereal box, that would attract a certain target market. This included using bright primary colours with imagery that would draw the attention of children, with less concern over the nutritional value inside the box. In high school when I was old enough to watch PG13 movies, we were bombarded with Peter Stuyvesant & Camel cigarette commercials. If you smoked, you were seen as ‘cool’. After turning 18 and obtaining a driver’s licence, I became the target audience for billboards advertising things like McDonalds. All these marketing initiatives are designed to strongly influence us to make poor lifestyle choices. External stimuli have always been in play. But our parents did not blindfold us to them, they had to teach us how to manage the influence and how to make good decisions for ourselves.

Although the Social Dilemma brings many valid points to the foreground, it seems to place all the blame solely on the big social media players, when, in my opinion, parents also need to accept a part of that blame. As a parent it is part of our role to educate our children about the ‘nature’ of our society and how to constructively cope and set up boundaries. We need to take charge over what social platforms our children are exposed to, their ‘screen time’ on social media and manage online security measures.

Just as we would teach our children about peer pressure around underage drinking and smoking, or breaking the law, we need to be teaching our children about the types of negative influences they will be exposed to when online. Parents should actively upskill themselves and their children on appropriate ‘online behaviour’; the functionality, privacy, and boundaries of social media platforms and to help them find a healthy balance.

It’s more than a Social Dilemma, it’s a Parenting Dilemma too.