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‘It makes you want to throw your phone in the bin’: The film turning teens off social media

“It just makes you want to stop and throw your phone in the bin it’s so eye-opening.”

The documentary premiered at Sundance Film Festival early this year but hit Netflix this month and is trending online and among parents who have long worried about the impact social media has on kids’ self-esteem.

In it, many of the co-creators of global platforms including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest and others reveal they are so concerned about the harms of social media that they ban or severely restrict their kids’ use.

Social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt notes a “gigantic increase” in depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide among pre-teen and teenage children, Gen Z, who have been on social media since mid-primary school.

He says numbers of teenage girls admitted to hospital for self-harm including cutting were stable until around 2011-13, but in the US these have risen 62 per cent for 15-19-year-olds and 189 per cent for pre-teen girls; “that is horrifying”.

“We’ve seen the same pattern with suicide,” he said. In older teen girls it’s up 70 per cent compared with the first decade of this century and “in pre-teen girls, who had very low rates [previously] it’s up 151 per cent and that pattern points to social media.”

Watching the documentary, Catherine Manning, who runs self-esteem workshops for young people, said the revelations about the methods used by social media platforms to get into people’s minds and the statistics around the resulting self harm left her “in tears”.

Catherine Manning, a self-esteem educator, was "in tears" watching the Netflix documentary in which social media's creators outline its harms to young people. Her daughter, Lucinda, has changed her ideas about the platforms after watching it.

Catherine Manning, a self-esteem educator, was “in tears” watching the Netflix documentary in which social media’s creators outline its harms to young people. Her daughter, Lucinda, has changed her ideas about the platforms after watching it.Credit:Jason South

“I was just thinking about how abducted our kids have been and how much it [social media] is already causing them so much pain and anxiety. But at the same time, it is such a great tool for our socialisation,” said Ms Manning, CEO of SEED workshops.

“The statistics presented about the rise in self-harming behaviours and suicide among young people certainly correlate with those around the increase in things like body dysmorphia [a mental health condition in which physical defects are imagined] across the board,” she said.

“The powerful thing for kids to identify is that something they care about so much has no care for them other than as revenue … there is nothing new in this, but it makes it a whole lot more personal.”

Teens including Neisha Biviano, her friend Mia Quinn, also 15, and Ms Manning’s daughter Lucinda, 18, are saying the documentary’s revelations have been so affecting it will influence their real-world relationships with social media.

I was just thinking about how abducted our kids have been and how much it [social media] is already causing them so much pain and anxiety.

Catherine Manning, CEO SEED workshops

Mia Quinn, an aspiring visual artist and photographer, said despite the value platforms such as Instagram offer, especially showing her other young people’s art, after watching The Social Dilemma she immediately told her friendship circle she wanted to delete the app.

“I had just watched The Social Dilemma and said [to my friends] guys let’s all delete Insta and Snapchat, I said ‘Insta isn’t working for me I don’t want to be here anymore, this isn’t right’.

“Then again, I don’t want to leave it and move to a different platform without my friends [who did not want to abandon it entirely].”

She unfollowed large numbers of people, including all “influencers”, and stuck only with those offering creativity.

She said this “confused the algorithm” on Instagram – which guesses what individual users might like and curates personalised streams and targeted ads – and “it now only shows me new people to follow that are mainly art students, and that’s really good”.

“I think the best thing you can do is buy books, unfollow influencers who make their money from social media – they bring more harm than good to everyone – turn your notifications off … and follow more of your hobbies and interests rather than people.”

Ms Biviano says despite the instinct to disconnect, the fact many positive things come into her world via social media means it is worth continuing with. “It has two possibilities: there is a really amazing virtual place that’s filled with acceptance and it can be a lovely creative outlet and inspiring.

“But the other is this breeding zone full of self-destructive energy and hate and this increasing amount of political, polarising views getting thrown up, and also an increasing amount of negative and really toxic, unreachable standards that have been created.”

Julie Inman Gant, eSafety Commissioner, has "lived" The Social Dilemma and believes the will by giant platforms to lead the creation of a safe social medial culture is not there.

Julie Inman Gant, eSafety Commissioner, has “lived” The Social Dilemma and believes the will by giant platforms to lead the creation of a safe social medial culture is not there.Credit:Janie Barrett

The national eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, has insider experience of tech corporation culture and says the will to create a safe environment is not there.

“I worked in the tech industry for more than 20 years and actually lived the Social Dilemma,” she said, “I tried to serve as a ‘constructive safety antagonist’ from within the industry, but it only got me so far because the corporate will and leadership was not there.”

The film particularly illustrates the influence of social media on children who may not yet have developed sufficient critical reasoning skills to stay safe online and combat fake news, she said.

“If the tech giants are building the digital roads they must also be installing the virtual seatbelts and stop signs and policing theses roads to keep users safe.”

Given Facebook has 2.5 billion users and YouTube has 1.5 billion, and algorithms create and recommend content, “the frightening reality is that they [users] could spend this critical early part of their lives only hearing one viewpoint”.

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Melbourne University senior social sciences lecturer Dr Lauren Rosewarne has written two books on social media and says revelations about activities of big tech companies shock users but they generally do not cause widespread user-behavior change.

The impression given in The Social Dilemma that developers were “babes in the woods” who had no idea features they built could become harmful or addictive were “laughable”, but members of the generation that has known no life before social media are equipped with more media literacy than older peers.

“What we need to do culturally is think about how do we become more savvy users and how do we control the tech we use rather than letting it control us,” she said.

Lucinda Manning, 18, said though parents may believe kids did not question the dark arts of social media platforms competing in what the film dubs the “attention extraction” industry, they do and will be even more selective now.

Friends have deleted apps like Facebook and Instagram as they’re very aware of the negative impacts it has on their mental health.

Lucinda Manning, 18

“I do believe my generation is becoming very aware of the impacts social media has on them. I think many parents think young people don’t care and aren’t paying attention but the reality is we are, and we really do care.

“Many people my age are changing the ways they use their devices, including friends of mine who have deleted apps like Facebook and Instagram as they’re very aware of the negative impacts it has on their mental health.

“The documentary definitely encouraged me to think more about the amount of time and effort I put into social media and I believe just watching the documentary is a step towards change.”

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