The Social Dilemma: how bad is social media? Can mindfulness help?

Many of us in the Plum Village App team watched recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. For a group of people who work with both technology and mindfulness, it really struck a chord. It hit home how crucial technology is in shaping our lives, including the real harm social media can cause.

Of course, there are many benefits from social media, but the downsides seem impossible to ignore. As our design guru, Maarten, said, “Finally somebody is putting words to what we already kinda know.”

What does The Social Dilemma warn about?

By interspersing a clever dramatisation, this compelling documentary helps to show the real-world impacts of social media, using testimonials from former employees of the biggest tech companies. We’d strongly recommend watching it, but in a nutshell, here are some of the problems it highlights:

Addictive by design

The Social Dilemma points out that big technology companies’ “business is to keep people engaged on the screen”. We don’t pay for social networks, so income must come from advertisers. This means that these companies’ goals aren’t to build products that improve our lives. Instead, their motivation is to create products that give advertisers the greatest chance of changing our behaviour.

Psychological insight and extensive testing of different options shows what keeps us hooked. Features like notifications and news feeds have been designed to hack into our dopamine reward pathways in a similar way to slot machines.

For example, if convenience was the goal, why would a social network send an email notification about you being tagged in a photo – but not include that photo in the email?

We might think we aren’t susceptible to outside influences, but experiments during elections show how real-world behaviour is tangibly affected by social media. At one point, a former Pinterest employee admits that while working on these products by day he would still find himself addicted to his phone by night. Even understanding how these dynamics work wasn’t enough to free himself.

Data

“They have more data about us that has ever been imagined in human history; it is unprecedented,” says Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Business School professor emeritus, and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

It is this data that helps build an algorithm that can predict our behaviour and keep us hooked.

Young people’s mental health

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points to a “gigantic increase in depression and anxiety in American teenagers” that started between 2011 and 2013. He claims that self-harm and suicide were stable for many years, but saw a huge increase that coincided with the widespread use of smartphones.

Caring what people think about us is part of our evolutionary development, as acceptance within a tribe was historically crucial to our survival. But young people are now constantly monitored according to social approval, via social media – and we didn’t evolve for that.

In addition, as young people’s attention moves from television to phones and social media, we lose the regulation that would apply to, for example, Saturday morning kids’ TV.

Perhaps even more troublingly, smartphones have become a digital pacifier, meaning that young people don’t experience or learn to cope with feeling alone, uncomfortable, or afraid.

Polarisation

Because algorithms suggest content based on our previous choices, individuals are having very different online experiences. This is leading to increased polarisation; we are only ever exposed to content which reinforces our views and interests, while others only see content which reinforces theirs. We end up divided.

Conspiracy theories and fake news

An MIT study showed that, on social media, fake news spreads six times faster than factual news. When large-scale problems such as the climate crisis and Covid-19 require scientific understanding and collective action, fake news can be extremely damaging.

A political weapon

It is not only advertisers wanting us to buy something who use the captive attention, data, and persuasive power of social media. Political actors often also take advantage. For example, hate-speech stoked up on Facebook against Rohingya Muslims in Burma/Myanmar led to much violence.

What does The Social Dilemma suggest we do?

Some of the solutions proposed by the documentary include:

▪️ Campaign for regulation
▪️ Start conversations on the subject
▪️ Uninstall apps from your phone that waste time
▪️ Turn off all notifications that are not timely and important
▪️ Don’t accept video recommendations
▪️ Fact check by considering sources
▪️ Follow people on Twitter that you disagree with
▪️ Remember that many people in the tech industry don’t let their children have a device

And of course, the extreme option:

▪️ Delete social media accounts

Can mindfulness help?

A key protagonist of The Social Dilemma is former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris. He is a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology – one of the principles of which is to nurture mindfulness.

While it might be foolhardy to think mindfulness practice alone is enough to protect against all the ills of social media, it can perhaps help. After all, mindfulness trains our attention. When our attention is at risk of being hijacked, the more control and mastery we have over it, the better.

Through mindfulness, we can become more aware of whether our interaction with social media is having a positive or negative impact on us. We can become more analytic of the impulse to grab our phone and check social media as a form of distraction when experiencing some sort of discomfort. Instead of picking up the phone, we may discover that mindfulness allows us to soothe and resist those uncomfortable feelings.

We can also use mindfulness to ensure we are building a sense of joy and connection in our daily lives, through time in nature, meaningful interaction with others, and paying real attention to daily actions like walking and eating. If we can feel enough joy and connection through mindfulness, we can reduce our need for the more shallow gratification offered by social media.

The Plum Village App

As well as a whole host of mindfulness practices, the Plum Village App features a Device Meditation with Brother Phap Luu, to help develop our awareness of our relationship with technology.

Thich Nhat Hanh has made it clear that we can make good use of technology. It is in that spirit that we offer this app. Even meditation apps can use technology unhelpfully – so we have deliberately kept ours free of distractions. There is no autoplay, and we don’t use gamification or do anything like count how many consecutive days you have meditated. And we’ve recently launched a web version so that a smartphone isn’t necessary for accessing our content.

mindful.technology

Our wonderful software developer, Justin, runs the website mindful.technology. It gives lots of fantastic advice for bringing mindfulness to the use of technology – including freeing yourself from Facebook, enjoying tech-free evenings, and leaving your phone at home.

What else can we do?

Although not substitutes for the bigger solutions that are needed, as a team we have identified some technological solutions to help reclaim some autonomy and peace online:

▪️ Using Firefox as a browser to reduce tracking

▪️ Getting the Facebook container add-on, preventing Facebook/Instagram from following you across the web through their trackers

▪️ Block tracking of emails in Gmail by installing the Ugly Email add-on

▪️ Get the Privacy Badger add-on

▪️ Using this extension to remove recommended videos on YouTube


The Plum Village App is a not-for-profit tech initiative which aims to make mindfulness practice more accessible. Instead of adverts or subscriptions, we rely on generous donations to allow us to offer the app for free.

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