3 Critical Takeaways About Kids and Social Media From Netflix's The Social Dilemma

Ever lie on the couch with the intention of relaxing for a few minutes with your phone in hand only to spend hours mindlessly scrolling through apps like Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter? Yep, us too. And while social media is seamlessly woven into the fabric of our everyday lives in 2020, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma shows how harmful spending endless hours on social media can be, particularly when it comes to our children.

Starring Skyler Gisondo and Vincent Kartheiser, The Social Dilemma oscillates between scripted scenes showing the negative — but all too common — effects social media has on the average American family and real-life testimony from current and former Silicon Valley executives on the various pitfalls of apps like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Eye-opening and downright jaw-dropping at points, the documentary highlights just how dependent we are on our smartphones and what constantly staring at a screen full of apps does to our mental health. As parents, we know the importance of practicing what we preach, however, staying off our favorite apps or work email is easier said than done.

Parents who want to reevaluate their family's relationship with social media should consider the following takeaways from The Social Dilemma. Read ahead to learn how social media may be negatively affecting your kids' psyches and what to do about it.

Social Media Can Negatively Affect Kids’ Self-Worth

Social Media Can Negatively Affect Kids’ Self-Worth

One of the most disturbing elements of The Social Dilemma is just how much regularly using smartphones can negatively affect a kid's self-worth.

"These technology products were not designed by child psychologists who are trying to protect and nurture children," says Tristan Harris — a former Google design ethicist and the cofounder of the Center For Humane Technology — in the film.

He notes that social media can negatively impact children's mental health. "It's not just that it's controlling where they spend their attention," he explains. "Especially social media starts to dig deeper and deeper down into the brain stem and take over kids' sense of self-worth and identity."

"These technology products were not designed by child psychologists who are trying to protect and nurture children."

According to the documentary, there are also alarming statistics to back up this concept. After all, anyone with an online profile knows how fleeting that happy sensation — or "fake, brittle popularity," as Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook's former VP of growth, calls it — feels when you get likes on an Instagram post.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, PhD, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, explains that the damning effect social media has on young adults is palpable.

"There has been a gigantic increase in depression and anxiety for American teenagers which began right between 2011 and 2013," he says. "The number of teenage girls out of 100,000 in this country who were admitted to a hospital every year because they've cut themselves or otherwise harmed themselves . . . was pretty stable until around 2010, 2011, and then it [began to go] way up."

According to the documentary, the amount of United States hospital admissions for nonfatal self-harm has gone up by 62 percent for girls between the ages of 15 and 19. For girls who fall into the 10 to 14 age range, the figure has increased by 189 percent since social media became mainstream.

Experts are seeing the same trend with suicide rates. Suicides in teen girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have increased by 70 percent compared to the first decade of the century. The suicide rate of preteen girls (between the ages of 10 and 14) has increased by 151 percent in the same time frame, according to Dr. Haidt. Although experts can't say that social media, specifically, has caused these alarming trends, the correlation is unsettling.

There's No Such Thing as Privacy on the Internet

There's No Such Thing as Privacy on the Internet

While the concept of internet privacy is worrisome for most adults, The Social Dilemma delicately points out that it's especially problematic for teens. Because Gen Z is the first generation that took to social media in middle school, they're used to coming home from school and spending hour after hour on their devices.

Throughout the documentary, experts confirm that social media users don't have any privacy whatsoever in terms of what they search or what videos and photos they interact with on their feeds. While that's scary enough as an adult, it's particularly disturbing when you take our children into account.

"I don't know any parent who says, 'Yeah, I really want my kids to [grow] up feeling manipulated by tech designers.'"

Although apps like Facebook and Instagram appear to be free to the everyday consumer, in reality, these technology companies are simply taking advantage of us through advertising. "The classic saying is, 'If you're not paying for the product, you are the product,'" Harris explains, later adding that companies like Facebook, Pinterest, Google, and TikTok are competing for our attention.

"There are all of these services on the internet that we think of as free," explains Justin Rosenstein, a former Google and Facebook engineer who invented the "like" button. "But they're not free, they're paid for by advertisers. Why do advertisers pay those companies? They pay in exchange for showing their ads to us."

When you spend so much time on your phone or laptop, it's easy to forget about the manipulation tactics at play. And kids who obviously aren't old enough to understand marketing are particularly vulnerable.

"I don't know any parent who says, 'Yeah, I really want my kids to [grow] up feeling manipulated by tech designers — manipulating their attention, making it impossible to do their homework . . . [comparing] themselves to unrealistic standards of beauty," Harris says. "No one wants that."

Parents Need to Have Ongoing Conversations With Kids About Social Media

Parents Need to Have Ongoing Conversations With Kids About Social Media

For parents whose children are already active on social media, it's important to regularly touch base about how much time they're spending on their phones and what they could be doing instead. There's no reason that teens should be spending four, five, or six hours on Instagram — which sadly isn't unusual! — every single day.

Teens who struggle with curbing their screen time should consider turning off all of their notifications on their phones to avoid being distracted. Parents who are concerned about their kids' safety should also consider using Qwant — a search engine that doesn't store your search history — rather than Google.

For families whose children aren't old enough to have their own cell phones yet, consider holding off as long as possible. As noted in the credits, many tech executives don't allow their kids to have screen time, let alone social media, for good reason.

Dr. Haidt lays out three rules meant to help parents navigate the murky waters of social media:

  • 1. Keep all devices out of the bedroom at night. "Whatever the time is — half an hour before bedtime — all devices [should be] out," Dr. Haidt advises.
  • 2. No social media until high school. "Personally, I think the age should be 16," he explains. "Middle school's already hard enough. Keep [social media] out until high school."
  • 3. Work out a time budget with your kid. "If you talk with them and say, 'Well, how many hours a day do you want to spend on your device? What do you think is a good amount of time?' They'll often say something pretty reasonable," he says.
click to play video

The Trailer For Netflix's The Social Dilemma