Why Can’t I Get Off My Phone?

As a college student living in the age of digital technology, staying focused on my school work has been a struggle. With every new email, text message, and like on social media, I find myself being pulled away from what I need to be doing. As my screen time reports keep getting higher, I question why social media controls my life. Luckily, there is an answer, and it can be found in the new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.


Released for streaming in America only nine days ago, this documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski puts tech experts in the spotlight, exposing the behind the scenes dangers of social media. It uses both testimonies from previous leaders of the world’s largest tech companies and a dramatized depiction of an everyday family’s social media habits to give the audience a holistic view of the way these companies function.


One leader, in particular, Tristan Harris, stole the show. Harris spent three years as a Google Design Ethicist, working to help the company steer their thoughts in a more ethical direction. After no progress was made, he became co-founder and President of the Center for Humane Technology that works to “realign technology with humanity.” He has even been called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.” Through his simplistic description of the tools (advertisements, notifications, etc) tech companies use to steer you in certain directions, he informs the audience that Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t robots, like the Terminator, taking over the world, but instead it’s algorithms that control our thoughts, usually without us realizing it.


After watching this I felt frightened and, honestly, ready to delete all of my social media accounts, which you may also feel after watching. With more deliberation though, I remembered an analogy Harris made in the documentary. He uses a bicycle as an example of a tool explaining that “No one got upset when bicycles showed up. If everyone’s starting to go around on bicycles, no one said, ‘Oh my god we’ve just ruined society.’...If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting patiently. If something is not a tool, it’s demanding things from you. We’ve moved away from having a tools based technology environment, to addiction and manipulation based technology environment.” This documentary reminds us how important it is to view technology as a tool, not something that can control our thoughts or use our attention for profit, but something that expands our communication and knowledge of the world in a positive way. Turning off your notifications, making a point to not click on an ad, or even set time limits for yourself are all ways to use social media as a tool. Also, becoming more aware of the way this digital technology works and advocating for these companies to do better, can change the way social media impacts everyone around the globe. 


As a teenager who has grown up with social media since middle school, it is very important to recognize the negative impacts it has had on my life and work to change them. If you feel controlled by social media like me, this documentary is a great place to start.