So You Watched ‘The Social Dilemma’. Now What?
A guide on how to execute on the disturbing revelations from the film.
So you watched The Social Dilemma.
For the unaware, it’s a new documentary/drama on Netflix which outlines in excruciating detail the ways in which technology companies are gaming the human psyche in order to make us pitifully addicted to our phones, so that they can harvest our data on behalf of big-bucks advertising companies.
I feel as if on some level most of us were already aware of this basic premise.
But to hear it directly from the mouths of the inventors of such algorithmic technologies, as well as beginning to understand the quite insidious mechanics that underlie their central aims, was particularly chilling.
The effect is so strong that, not seconds after finishing the film, my first instinct was to grab my phone to see what the digital zeitgeist had to say about it, before I remembered that behavioural impulse was the very thing I was newly incensed about.
To think that I, and by extension we, are constantly being syphoned of our most personal data for the significant and exclusive profit gains of giant corporations is offensive on its own.
But then to consider the quite severe effects of this mostly unacknowledged, wide-scale addiction to screens and social media in the form of anxiety, listlessness, unhealthy stimulation, reduction in attention spans, sleeplessness, depression, jealousy, misinformation, division, and hatred, is enough to strongly consider a radical lifestyle change.
Which is why I was surprised about the lack of actionable recommendations regarding how to ween ourselves off the good stuff in the film.
To remedy this, i’ve thrown together a rough guide on how to do exactly that.
First, My Results
I’ve been practicing these habits for a week now and have experienced pretty decent success. My total daily phone usage has dropped 42% since implementing these tactics, and my most used apps (Reddit, Instagram, Youtube) have seen an average of a 37% reduction in daily usage.
That has translated to nearly 1.5 hours each day removed of staring blankly into my phone.
What do I spend all my new found time doing? Mostly longing for another hit of digital smack, but also some other quite useful stuff too like reading, writing, walking, and breathing without digital assistance or interruption.
I feel a bit calmer. Not significantly so, but every little helps, especially at a time like this. Here’s how you can do the same.
Confront Your Digital Dashboards
You might not be aware that there exists a dashboard in your phone which neatly presents to you all the key metrics related to your daily and weekly phone usage, including breakdowns of your most used apps, the amount of phone ‘pickups’ you perform in a day and at what time, and plenty of other useful and horrible information that you may or may not want to know.
I always knew this existed, but much like my bank account, I rarely dared to enter for fear of the numbers that lay dormant inside.
And as with my bank account, I have found that in order to take control we must bravely confront the beast within. I was both shocked and dismayed to learn of my average daily screen time, thinking that it was actually impossible it could be that high, there must have been some error. Take a look at yours, you‘ll probably feel the same way.
The first step is admitting you have a problem!
In iOS, this dashboard is called ‘Screen Time’, and it’s pre-installed in the Settings app.
Update: In the latest version of iOS (iOS 14), you can add ‘Screen Time’ as a widget to your home screen, giving you a more easily visible and constant display of your live daily usage.
In Android, it’s called ‘Digital Wellbeing’, and it takes the form of a downloadable app from the Google Play Store.
In each iteration, you not only get a clear view of your daily indiscretions, but also the ability to get in there and tweak around a bit in order to stamp out the worst of your bad habits.
For me, that meant setting ‘app limits’ for my top three most used apps. I capped Reddit at 1 hour per day (baby steps), and Instagram and Youtube at 30 minutes. If you dare to go over, you are presented with a screen that blocks the app, informing you of your over zealousness, and the option to bypass the block by extending the timer by 1 minute, 15 minutes, or for the rest of the day.
So there’s some amount of self control required, which is probably a good thing. The guilt associated with a 15 minute extension is enough to push me back into the real world anyway.
Phone Usage Window
Outside of the digital steps you can take to decrease your screen time, which is akin to your drug dealer staging an intervention, you should probably set some real world barriers in order to solidify your commitment to the cause.
An effective but surprisingly challenging one to try is creating a hard window of allowable daily phone usage.
If you wake up most days at 8:00am and go to sleep at 10:00pm, then a 9am–9pm phone window gives you a solid hour buffer of phonelessness directly after waking up and before sleeping.
It’s no secret that the short-wavelength blue light emitted from our phones rings the pineal gland like a boxer hitting a speedbag, disrupting the secretion of melatonin and prohibiting restfulness. Giving your eyes and brain a chance to obey normal circadian rhythms is a powerful key to unlocking a quick and restful night of sleep.
Billionaire entrepreneur Arianna Huffington puts her phone to bed outside her bedroom long before sleeping every night for this very reason. No really, she has an actual bed for her phone. That’s obviously absurd, but us normal people could try simply charging it in the next room, or out of reach of our beds. It probably has its own bedroom too.
If you have any trouble initiating sleep or experiencing the supposed benefits of it, you should ask yourself if your phone might have anything to do with it, and if you are making the appropriate commitments to fix it.
Experiment with Meditation
I hope you can believe me when I say that I hate being the ‘you should try meditation’ guy.
But it has particular relevance here, as it’s essentially a focussed practice in non-stimulation.
Probably the biggest reason my screen time was as high as it was wasn’t because of mammoth sessions of a particular app or apps. The bulk of my usage is interspersed throughout the day in hundreds of micro-segments.
I complete a paragraph, I grab my phone. I wait for the bus, I respond to mail. I cook food, I queue a video.
Attempting to become comfortable in moments of non-stimulation is probably the biggest challenge you will face in cleaning up your digital habits, and without a doubt the most profound.
It’s crazy to think that people my age were alive when phones weren’t smart enough to satisfy our every ephemeral curiosity, our most perfunctory informational request, our every stimulatory desire. I wonder how much time we’ve collectively lost filling the empty space with misery inducing nonsense, space that could have been spent in quiet moments of blissful contentment.
Continue Your Education
The movie was inspiring, revelatory, and memorable, but everything has its expiry date.
More so, despite the film’s influence, the fundamental mechanics of social media remain unchanged. Notifications still ping endlessly around the world, and your phone will continue to beckon.
The core messages of the film have already become less prominent in my mind, and the newly installed behaviours will go the same way unless we continue our education in these matters, and turn our newfound behaviours into habits, and subsequently our habits into a lifestyle.
Here are a list of books and other media related to the topics touched on by the film:
- Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter (Book)
- Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier (Book)
- The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff (Book)
- How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day and How Better Tech Could Protect Us From Distraction by Tristan Harris (TED Talks)
- Moment by Tim Kendall (App)
The Final Step — Realise a Certain Amount of Phone Usage is OK
Unexpectedly, in implementing these new habits into my life, a new and unwanted feeling of guilt kept coming up in the times I actually did use my phone, even if I was following my own rules.
It’s clear that the apps and media focussed on by the film are architecturally designed for unhealthy engagement.
But my phone isn’t just a social media device. It’s a camera that captures some of my most precious moments. It’s an utterly essential navigational device, a constructive health tracker. We shouldn’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
And if you want to kill 10 minutes waiting at the dentist’s office by playing a game, keeping up with your friend’s and family, or learning pointless facts about frogs, that’s probably ok too.
So when you pickup your phone, ask yourself a few questions.
Do I need to use the app i’m about to use?
Am I wanting to use this app out of a genuine desire, or as a learned behavioural response?
And finally, will this usage fundamentally add or take away from my mental clarity and happiness?
Best of luck on your new life.