A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that while The Social Dilemma doesn't necessarily break new ground in the debate about the dangers of social media, it certainly provides plenty to worry about and some ways to take action. The people interviewed are unusual experts, in that many of them helped create the most popular social media sites today. Now they are speaking publicly about how the business model behind these sites treats customers as products to sell to advertisers. Teens may see their own experiences reflected in a fictional narrative set up to show the effects of social media addiction, the psychological harm of relying on social media for positive reinforcement, and the results of widespread misinformation. Violence is seen in images on the news, including protests, riots, fires, mobs, and bombings. In fictionalized scenes, a young girl breaks open a plastic jar to get at her phone, and a teen and his sister are arrested at a protest. Addiction to social media is compared to drug use, and interviewees discuss rates of self-harm and suicide among teens and tweens. At the end, the experts make a few recommendations that we can all do to try to reduce the hold social media has on us. Language includes "s--t," "damn," and exclamatory use of "God." The documentary doesn't offer much diversity of experts/opinions.
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What's the story?
THE SOCIAL DILEMMA follows former Google designer Tristan Harris and others on a quest to educate the public about the way social media is constructed to manipulate users and foment addiction, radicalization, and polarization. Now running the Center for Humane Technology, Harris is one of a handful of former tech designers and innovators interviewed in this documentary who shed light on the constantly updated algorithms that help sites predict and manipulate our online behavior to drive more engagement and bring in advertising dollars. The result is addictive technology that even these experts say they have a hard time quitting, and that can have seriously detrimental psychological effects on individuals. Some of their points are dramatized in a fictional narrative. The interviewees also talk about how, on a global level, social media has been weaponized by bad actors to destabilize democracies and spread misinformation. The way our individual feeds transform to reaffirm our existing beliefs is leading to distinct spheres of realities online, to the extent that people can no longer agree on what's true or factual, sowing division and chaos. The experts are worried, and in this documentary they explain why and what we can possibly do about it.
Is it any good?
Mark Zuckerberg isn't mentioned by full name until late in this documentary, but his company's outsize influence on the world of social media is felt all over the film. The featured talking heads here have mostly left top tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter after having helped build them up, and now seem to suffer from a collective guilty conscience. That only adds to how convincing they are about the existential threat social media poses, and their expertise pulls back the curtain on the methods. "We're all lab rats," one person suggests in a documentary full of similarly worrying statements that leave the impression that social media is to blame for many -- if not most -- contemporary individual and societal ills.
Director Jeff Orlowski visualizes some of the talking head commentary in animated sequences and a dramatized fictional narrative about phone-addicted teens suffering from negative online commentary and being manipulated by artificial intelligence (played by Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser) to dive down outrage-driven rabbit holes. These sequences may help illustrate the ideas for some viewers, but they aren't totally necessary. As expert voice after voice predicts more addiction, psychological afflictions, polarization, radicalization, and echo-chamber ignorance, it's impossible not to see the immediate relevance of their warnings. They leave us with a few recommendations and suggestions that may not be enough to turn the tide without public pressure for top-down regulation, but The Social Dilemma makes it clear that we ignore them at our own peril.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what they found to be the most revelatory and the scariest pieces of information in The Social Dilemma.
Experts recommend setting your own social media limitations on notifications, apps, daily usage, and more. What limits have you set for yourself? How well do these work?
Social media is talked about as both a utopia and a dystopia. How so?
Social media is also talked about as "an existential threat" to humanity. Why? Do you think the threat is overstated or not? How come?
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