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The Social Dilemma – are your students puppets to social media?

Netflix smash hit movie on the influence of social media is one of the most talked about this year

With 4.5bn online – and approximately 4bn of them on mobile devices – social media is now as commonplace as eating lunch. It is not an exaggeration to say that most people spend more time on social media than they do eating or bathing, or even talking in person to other human beings. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – and COVID-19 – have dramatically accelerated the adoption of technologies and smart devices, but are we ploughing into the future as the untested guinea pigs of these technologies, in a race to compete or to be accepted socially?

Netflix’s new smash hit documentary, The Social Dilemma, poses this question on the impact of these digital platforms, using the voices of a number of former senior-executives-turned-whistleblowers who reveal the true motivations of some of the most powerful companies on earth. 

The movie illustrates that society finds itself as the product in ‘the attention economy‘ – where time on screen means competitive advantage to giants like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google (FAANG). The longer we stay on a single platform, the more data they collect, the more customized the ads are which can be served to you based upon your digital choices and preferences, and the higher the company value. 

The debate is whether we are all just “lab rats” in an egotistical race to market dominance, or as Tristan Harris from the Centre for Humane Technologies puts it, “The race to the bottom of the brain stem”. Which social platform can gain significant edge to amass the most data and retain marketshare, eyeballs and influence?

That last word – influence – is, of course, the concern. Adults feel that they have the critical thinking skills to discern when they are being manipulated and ‘sold’ a dummy. For this reason, many may be entertained by the movie, even shocked, but little in their concrete daily patterns of behavior may change. 

Getting this message into Generation Z, however, can shape the way they consume content, and give them the opportunity to get up to speed with the reality of social manipulation, at a critical formative junction. 

And many adults can establish an objective view of what social media really is – tech companies competing in the attention economy.That doesn’t mean they stop using it, it means they see it for what it is. MySociaLife, the leading digital life skills program in South African schools proposes, “We need to help kids to move from safer to smarter so they can explore and excel.”

Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, says, “I have been following many of these speakers and other professors in the movie for the last few years – I communicate with a few of them in the US via LinkedIn and email, and some are often happy to help our education program here in South Africa. They were a significant reason why I decided to move from being a media agency agency owner myself, to teach kids in schools about media literacy, online safety and their use of devices and social platforms.”

Parents work hard to build a values system in the home, and schools seek to do similar. Parents want, and society desperately needs, our kids to have an informed and balanced world view, compassion, empathy, and the skills of critical thinking. While the internet exposes us to more, and educates us, an algorithm can swim upstream against these values, feeding us more and more information to keep us glued to our screens. When you add in the science of how the brain works and the dopamine that gets delivered to the pleasure centre in the brain – when you get a like or succeed in a mission on a game – you can understand why devices are stuck into our palms, bags and back pockets. Before long we can believe what we are being fed, rather than contemplate it or challenge it. Virtual hamsters on a wheel. 

MySociaLife deeply believes critical thinking, and the 8 digital soft skills that they teach in schools, will be the superpower combination to accompany technical ability, for Generation Z. The problem is that schools need more understanding of the complexity of life online and how to straddle the line of popular culture and important life skills while inspiring their students to embrace technology safely and intelligently. 

“Right now, there aren’t enough educators that can understand this massive landscape of digital identity, reputation management, privacy, security, sexuality online, critical thinking, mental health, compassion – and empathy and how this looks in an online context. That’s what makes our program successful. Students find it relatable and they give us credit for it, saying that it impacts the way the view this digital world they operate in,” he concludes.

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