A feast of information and a famine of wisdom—this is one of the biggest challenges facing us today. We are fed information non-stop through devices designed to keep us “checking in” online, while our mental muscles of deeper concentration—the effort it takes to pursue intellectual growth and cultivate a heart of wisdom—grow weaker. Stuffed with the junk food served up through a scrolling smorgasbord, we have little appetite (or energy) to obey King Solomon, who urged us to “get wisdom” and “get understanding,” since “wisdom is supreme” (Prov. 4:5-9).
Many people feel too attached to their devices and their social media apps. We realize that excessive “screen time” is unhealthy. But placing limits on your device or your apps doesn’t solve the problem of social media being designed not merely to inform you but deform you, to mold you into the kind of person who keeps coming back for more. It’s not merely the “amount of time” we spend on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube that matters. It’s also what we do through these apps.
That’s why I’m heartened to see the buzz around a new documentary, The Social Dilemma. The program explores the psychology of social media, what the companies behind Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and so on, are all about (advertising, surprise!), and why these apps are so addictive.
Several of the people interviewed for the documentary have written important books on this topic, and I enjoyed seeing them discuss these issues on camera. But the documentary also includes dramatization, showing the effects on a family when a student gets sucked into the whirlpool of online community that leads to a distorted vision of reality.
Here is why The Social Dilemma matters, and, if it gains a wide audience, may help people in our culture understand the challenges of constant connectivity.
1. We need a better understanding of the pressures and anxiety that kids and teenagers experience from social media.
When a student is active on social media, there is no escape from the relentless gaze of one’s peers. Connecting online quickly becomes performing online. And even if you say “no” to Facebook or Instagram or other social media accounts, teenagers can feel social pressure that goes beyond the normal anxieties of middle school and high school through apps that aren’t always seen as “social media.”
For example, YouVersion, the world’s most popular Bible app, contains reading plans and opportunities for making verse art and sharing your images of Bible verses. Your friends can comment on those verses. Chats happen over the Bible studies. In other words, the Bible is social media. You can keep the social elements to a minimum, if you choose, but they’re still there. I know this firsthand as a parent who has been enthusiastic in my commendation of YouVersion to my kids. A joke made at someone’s expense in a comment stream, or the question of why a teacher “likes” the verse art crafted by other students but hasn’t given a “like” to your own—these are issues we’ve dealt with, and it’s led to good conversations about Bible reading, social anxiety, peer pressure, and practicing one’s righteousness in public. Nothing against YouVersion—it’s an amazing tool! I mention it only as an example of how quickly the social media ethos has seeped into everything.
2. We need to better understand why our devices have become sources of such addiction for just about all of us.
The Social Dilemma gives a good answer to why we’re so inclined to be hunched over our phones: the apps are designed to dominate our attention and keep us coming back for more. Notifications are one source of this constant activity, but that only scratches the surface. The algorithms serve up content we find interesting in order to keep us on the platform, consuming, consuming, consuming. And the better the algorithm, the more we’re likely to be captive to the information that gets the most reaction from us. Online games are similarly designed, to keep you coming back for more and more rounds, holding out rewards so that you can’t max out all at once.
In his excellent review of this documentary, Chris Martin writes,
The best we can do is recognize that the water in which we swim is toxic. The water is very much not fine. Our job is to do what we can to clean up the water and not add to its toxicity. Recognize that Facebook serves you content with the intent to cause you to engage. That political post you received in your feed? Facebook knows it will fire you up and lead you to comment. Resist that urge. That sensual picture that appears in your Instagram explore tab is served to you because Instagram knows you will look at it. Be a smart fish: resist the bait.
The Social Dilemma backs up Chris’s perspective by featuring interviews with some of the people who designed these products.
3. We need to become more aware of how much social media affects human interaction.
One of the best parts of The Social Dilemma was its description of how social media has changed, for better and for worse, basic human interaction. The casual glance that leads to an introductory conversation and perhaps a discussion that might lead to a romantic relationship is now replaced with a “like” or comment on Instagram, and the guy and girl across the room, though in close physical proximity, are glued instead to their devices. The Social Dilemma shows how and why our human interaction is changed by our constant connectivity.
4. We need to be alerted to just how distorted our view of reality is when we get our impressions of the world and news from social media feeds designed to keep you engaged.
You are not seeing the world as it is. You’re seeing the world as it has been tailored to you. And this is one of the main drivers of polarization today. We are not experiencing the same reality. In a contentious political season, we should be aware that narratives get created and perceptions get formed by the impressions left to us through social media scrolling.
This is happening in churches across the country as well. I can see it happen in my own feeds. I click on a YouTube video with someone who is attacking a church, a ministry, or a well-known Christian individual. Soon, the algorithm serves up likeminded criticisms of the same Christian leader or ministry. Eventually, I form an impression that “there’s a groundswell of criticism here!” And if I didn’t know the church or the leader personally, I might be inclined to believe some of the things that have been spun incorrectly. I might believe, for lack of a better word, “fake news.” Worse, I might share the videos or articles and thus take part in what often is less about disagreement online and more about outright slander.
Pastors across the country are concerned by what some members of their congregation are falling for—whether it be conspiracy theories related to politics (QAnon is only one of many), or narratives about denominational drift or attacks on different pastors and leaders.
Why The Social Dilemma?
The first step in battling social media manipulation is to know you’re being manipulated, and that’s what this documentary does well. I don’t endorse Netflix because of some egregious choices as to what they put on their platform. But I’m glad the streaming service added this documentary (and ironically, served it up via its algorithm as a recommended resource).
We desperately need wisdom in this time. Above all, we should heed Lady Wisdom, who says in Proverbs 9: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For by me your days will be many, and years will be added to your life.”