’The Social Dilemma’: Coping with social media addiction in the age of COVID-19

Netflix’s thought-provoking documentary explores increased social media use among youth and its potential threat to mental well-being.

If you’ve been struggling with increased screen time during the pandemic, “The Social Dilemma” may be worth viewing.

Netflix’s documentary “The Social Dilemma” (2020) delves into the implications of social media addiction as an invasive force in our everyday lives, covering a range of issues related to social media, from distorted body image to the spread of misinformation. Overall, it highlights how children and teenagers' mental health is currently at risk. Positive correlations between widespread technology use, teenage depression and suicide rates and their implications reflect a modern “social dilemma.”

According to Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the NYU Stern School of Business, between 2011 and 2013, social media and technology use became increasingly prevalent among teenagers. At around the same time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded a dramatic increase in suicide rates among youth aged 10–14, nearly tripling from 2007 to 2017. In the documentary, Haidt claims that “a whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, [and] more depressed.” The U.S. CDC has found that the number of children aged 6–17 years with a diagnosis of anxiety or depression increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007 and to 8.4% in 2011–2012.

Although it’s hard to prove a causal link between social media use and an increase in teenage depression and anxiety, Haidt says the statistics “[point] to [the advent of] social media.” Bintou Agne, a USC Class of 2020 alumna with a master’s in communication management, explained her thoughts on the documentary.

“Being on social media. . . can exacerbate a [person’s] insecurities,” Agne said. After watching the documentary, Agne decided to stop receiving notifications for social media on her phone, which has helped her feel less obligated to frequently check it.

On her Instagram Story, Sophie Viscardi, a recent USC graduate, commented on the documentary, writing, “social media fosters an addiction to projecting the perfect image of oneself online and validating that image through comparison to others.” The documentary addresses how extreme social media’s effect on body image and beauty standards can be, such that a new syndrome called ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’ has been coined to describe “young patients wanting surgery to look more like they do in filtered selfies.”

During the first four weeks of classes this online semester, Carlo Jiménez, a sophomore journalism student, noticed himself spending a lot of time in class checking Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter. However, after watching the documentary, he decided to delete Snapchat and Instagram and subsequently “found [himself] focusing more. . . just mentally in a better spot” and more academically successful as well.

Despite working from home and noticing her friends' struggles with isolation during the pandemic, Agne finds that setting time aside during the day for specific platforms such as Instagram or Facebook, as well as having a routine, really helps. She also recommends using the resources available at USC and the Engemann Student Health Center, or finding friend groups on Zoom to connect with.

“The Social Dilemma” includes a series of interviews with former tech company employees such as Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. Ironically, many of these former tech industry leaders recommend alternatives or solutions to social media addiction. Examples include turning off your phone notifications, unloading apps that no longer serve you, limiting personal screen time, and having conversations about technological manipulation.

Current youth and Gen Z were the first to grow up with smartphones, which were widely adopted in 2009, and research suggests that increased smartphone use may correlate with increased loneliness. Cigna’s 2018 survey of 10,000 U.S. adults found that younger generations, including “Gen Z-ers” and millennials, are more likely to struggle with loneliness than older generations. Another study of American adolescents found a correlation between increased screen time and lower psychological well-being (Twenge et al., 2018). To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a unique set of challenges with its lack of in-person social connection would be an understatement. Instead of succumbing to the desire to replace in-person socializing with increased social media use, however, consider the U.S. CDC’s recommendations for healthy ways to cope with stress during the pandemic. Rather than repeatedly scrolling through social media feeds, for example, staying connected to others online through phone calls or video chats is a means of social support that can help you feel “less lonely, or isolated.”

Wherever you are as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have been using increased screen time as a way to distract yourself or cope with social distancing.

Kelly Greco, USC’s Assistant Director of Outreach and Prevention Services, has some tips to maintain mental wellness. Managing your notifications, deleting a few apps, taking a walk outside, calling loved ones and participating in virtual programming are all great ways to take a break from computer screens, according to Greco. Above all, remember that you are not alone if you experience feelings of social isolation during these uncertain times.