Vail Christian High School students get “eye-opener” watching “The Social Dilemma” in class
Students at Vail Christian High School spent half of their school day Tuesday wading into the increasingly ubiquitous world of social media, its engineering and its social impacts — learning all about the good, the bad and the ugly.
Students watched “The Social Dilemma” and spent class time talking about the film with each other and their teachers.
Premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and now available for streaming on Netflix, the popular film features interviews with researchers and former tech workers who explore the darker sides of social media platforms, some of which they helped create — and keep their own kids away from.
The film looks at the benefits of such platforms. But it also looks at how they are designed not only to engage people, but to track everything people do online, with finely-tuned algorithms using that data to funnel targeted information to keep people engaged — then selling their data, eyeballs and attention to people peddling everything from trash cans and shampoos to fake news and conspiracy theories.
“There were some very powerful conversations,” said Stephanie Ward, a teacher at the school.
One girl walked away from the film planning to use a shorter cord to charge her smartphone each night so she can’t reach over to check it as easily or frequently, Ward said. Another went so far as to say that she wishes she lived in a different time without social media.
“Students need to be aware just how toxic, and I heard that word used, how toxic social media can be, and how it affects other people, young and old,” Ward said. “I think it was an eye-opener for a lot of these students. I think it’s going to make them more cognizant of how much time they are truly spending on apps.”
Students shared a range of perspectives on the film. Some called it overdramatized and “pummeling” in its messages that social media companies are manipulating and harming users. Others noted how some current and former tech leaders won’t let their own children use the apps or devices they developed, and questioned how the monetization of social media platforms has changed their business practices, ethics and impacts on society.
One student shared feeling some anxiety around her own smartphone, and its many distractions.
With the rapid rise of social media use over two decades, platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google and YouTube have been the focus of increasing research, and now TikTok.
According to the Center for Humane Technology, co-founded by Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist featured in the “The Social Dilemma,” that research paints a troubling picture of social media platforms and their impacts on everything from elections to public discourse and people’s personal interactions, feelings of self-worth and adequacy, and mental health.
In the center’s view, they are damaging information systems by spreading and amplifying fake news and polarizing views that fuel divisiveness, but keep people engaged; distracting people with constant interruptions that harm their ability to think, focus and be present with others; and taking a toll on public health, spurring difficulties with stress, loneliness, anxiety, depression, self-identity and cyberbullying.
Steve O’Neil, head of school at Vail Christian High School, said the school isn’t against technology or social media platforms, but wanted to incorporate the film to get students thinking about how such platforms are designed and operated and possibly impacting them.
“I’m praying that God will use this time to help our students more critically think through who they are and how social media and technology may be robbing them of that wonderful and beautiful potential,” O’Neil said. “Young adults have enough going on in their brains, where their emotions constantly jostle for control. The last thing they need is for artificial intelligence to step in and manipulate them.”
O’Neil noted the film may plant a seed for some students to make a lifestyle change, or pursue a path in college or in their careers to bring more ethical decision making to technology companies — now some of the largest and most powerful businesses in the world.
Students at Vail Christian High School — much like the rest of the country — didn’t solve the many debates over social media on Tuesday, including unresolved questions of if or how such companies should be more tightly regulated or even broken up for stifling competition.
One idea O’Neil did pitch to several students: The National Day of Unplugging on March 5-6, when people symbolically step away from their phones and computers for 24 hours to try to find a more healthy balance between life and the technologies that are grabbing a larger and larger share of more people’s time and attention.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at email@example.com.