Dec 4, 2020 | OPINION | By Mariel Zech | Illustration by Jubilee Rivera-Hernandez
“The Social Dilemma,” directed by Jeff Orlowski, is a docudrama on Netflix that sheds light on the darker side of social media. It includes insights from people in the tech world such as Justin Rosenstein, who co-created the Facebook “like” button, and Tristan Harris, a Design Ethicist at Google who later founded The Center for Humane Technology due to ethical concerns based off his time in the industry.
After watching the film, I was inspired to reflect on Instagram’s role in my life while growing up as well as the influence of social media on mental health in general.
By including a look into a fictional family whose lives are deeply saturated with phone use, “The Social Dilemma” provides a dramatized example of how phone addiction plays out.
I was particularly interested in the story arc of Isla, a young girl who we see constantly refreshing her Instagram to see who liked her ultra-edited, Snapchat-filtered selfies, who is anxious and upset at the dinner table when she doesn’t have access to her phone, and who is struggling with the loneliness and low self-esteem that comes with her excessive scrolling.
I can relate to Isla’s struggles. For a long time, I have criticized Instagram for being pointless and harmful, while simultaneously being addicted to it. While I have a much healthier relationship with the platform now, it was a formative and negative influence in my life when I was younger.
I first got Instagram in sixth grade, and I was obsessed. After posting, I continuously refreshed the app to see the incoming likes and comments, hungry for some dopamine for my 11-year-old brain. It was a tool to measure my self-worth and popularity, which was very important to me during my middle school years. I attached meaning to numbers that didn’t mean anything.
Whenever I would hang out (or, I should probably say, had a play date) with someone, I would take pictures with them to post. Whether I was posting a selfie from my iPhone or a snapshot from Photo Booth with the frog effect, it was a tool for me to show my followers who I was friends with and that I was having a fun weekend.
From a young age, I found that I could construct part of my image and reputation from behind a screen. People I wasn’t friends with in sixth grade commented on my pictures. That was quite the dopamine rush! It made me feel like I was making a new friend — but I wasn’t.
Instead of making all of my friends in the halls of school, some of my “connections” came from behind a screen. The comments were satisfying my desire for positive reinforcement. However, it is infinitely better to derive those feelings from raw human connection and dialogue, with all its challenges and awkwardness, than from a notification on your phone.
I remember creating fake accounts to like my own pictures in sixth grade. (Looking back, it’s actually hilarious and cringey that I thought people would fall for that. I made up random names and said they were my “camp friends.”)
Now that I’m older, I understand very well that Instagram engagement is equivalent in absolutely no way to my worth as a person. What you see on the app is carefully selected images from the best parts of people’s lives instead of a reflection of what everyday life is truly like, but you can imagine that when I was younger, I did not understand that.
This may be coming across as a bit melodramatic. It’s not like social media ruined my life. I still made plenty of friends in school. Nonetheless, my middle school and adolescent years were saturated in Instagram.
One of the simplest reasons I am against excessive social media use in young kids is that when usage starts to add up, it becomes such a waste of time. During a period when kids have so much to learn and their brains are rapidly developing, it’s best to be living in the moment and fully experiencing the world as much as possible.
I’m not arguing for no screen time, nor am I saying that all screen time is harmful. I think I got much more out of watching TV in my middle school years than scrolling through Instagram. When I was watching TV, I could have been looking up to a good role model in the show, learning about the role of humor and sarcasm in dialogue, or bonding with my siblings as we replicated the spaghetti tacos from iCarly to make for dinner.
Instagram, however, provided nothing useful or stimulating at the time, and was just a lifeless feed of filtered pictures that promoted comparing yourself to others and set unrealistic standards.
Since social media is such a significant part in the adolescent social scene, parents should not try to prevent their children from using social media entirely. That would likely just cause the child to resent their parents and make them feel like they’re missing out.
However, the established link between social media use and depression, anxiety, and impaired sleep in adolescents is enough to demonstrate that parents have a role in terms of limiting their child’s social media use.
I think parents should have discussions with their children about the drawbacks of social media and work together to create a screen time limit. Parents should explain that psychologists and scientists team up to try to get us hooked on the app and to maximize our dopamine production. Limits on screen time are important because otherwise, it is too easy to fall prey to the sneaky algorithms put in place by experts and to engage in mindless scrolling.
As I’ve grown up and the people I follow have grown up, Instagram has naturally become a more mature place, and that maturity has prompted my age group to better utilize Instagram as a platform for politics and activism.
Instagram can be a platform to educate people about the injustices faced by marginalized groups and to spread important information about how to donate, examine prejudice, and help. It can be a place to stay up to date with leaders such as Greta Thunberg, see what your favorite podcaster, author, fashion icon, or artist is up to, and promote your own creative work. I also enjoy accounts that only post “good news” and inspiring acts of kindness from around the world. Last but not least, there are also countless adorable animal accounts.
I am only against Instagram when it comes to using it as an “escape” or distraction, when mindless scrolling is taking up excessive time that could be spent on more meaningful things, or when it is negatively impacting mental health, self-esteem, and time management.
In particular, I think the platform can be harmful to impressionable young kids who are primarily seeing pictures of their peers or airbrushed celebrities and don’t really understand that the ‘perfection’ they see on Instagram is unattainable and not real.