Christians should pay attention to how technology affects their lives and the lives of those around them, but Netflix’s documentary, The Social Dilemma, is a flawed resource for those efforts. It misidentifies the problem, presents faulty evidence, and relies on fear to make its case.
The Social Dilemma is an hour and half feature documentary about the negative effects of social media on individuals, countries, and the world. Uniquely, its subjects are mostly former employees of major social media companies with a few outside experts who weigh in on matters of medical or psychological issues such as addiction or depression. However, it is extremely one-sided in this regard. It offers no contrasting perspective. In fact, Nir Eyal, who has a different perspective than the film, was interviewed for three hours, even earning credit in the film, yet no footage of that interview was shown.
First, it misidentifies the problem. These experts and the documentary present social media for profit as “The Problem” and primary driver of social ruin. Of course, Christians and also those of other faiths would say this is far from the real problem with humanity. The root problem is sin, human brokenness, and the consequences of disobedience to God.
Indeed, this is a common trap of technology critiques: treating the internet as the scapegoat for all human ills. At the start and in the last portion of the film there is a parade of horrible video clips. Footage of riots, violence, wars, terrorists gloating, streamed attacks and shootings, all seemingly to be blamed on social media. It ignores the spiritual and moral aspects of those scenes of violence and disruption, mischaracterizing them as caused by social media rather than the incredibly complex interwoven threads of human brokenness and pain.
The ills and evils of society cited in The Social Dilemma existed long before the advent of social media technology and Christianity offers a response to these evils.
A perspective of technological causation is a tempting one. To diagnose a single external factor, rather than an internal factor, is a comforting thought. If that is the case, our problems become something we can easily identify and control. But this neither matches with the Christian worldview nor does it match with the worldview of many other faiths. The world is much more complex and human lives, hearts, and minds are even more complex! “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote.
Second, the documentary fails as a good source of knowledge because it also presents faulty evidence on numerous counts. Christians should be judicious about their sources given Christ’s admonition to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” and the Ninth Commandment, “You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.”
We should all be concerned about loneliness and teen suicides, but it’s not as easy to remedy as cancelling your Facebook account. A literature review of 16 such studies reported findings related to anxiety or depression were inconclusive and that more research should be done. Furthermore, many studies that noted negative effects also found positive mental health benefits from social media use like finding support and learning about mental health. Suicide rates also started rising before the advent of social media.
Contrary to the film’s narrative, social media offers a number of benefits, particularly for Christians and other faith groups. Support groups abound for moms, cancer survivors, and people seeking to grow in their faith. Marketplaces allow small businesses to advertise on a budget and reach to the customers they’re trying to serve. It provides a way to maintain “loose ties” in our social networks, consume both local and international news, and it has been a tool to overthrow dictators and called attention to injustices.
Most importantly, the film relies on a fundamentally non-Christian approach to make its case. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” For all emerging technology issues, Christians in particular should face the future with hope of Christ’s return and hope that no matter what emerging technology may bring, even the direst of fictional dystopias, God is still God and has given us a spirit of “power, love, and self-discipline.” We are directed across the scripture to reject fear.
The Social Dilemma’s perspective is antithetical to these beliefs and therein lies the core harm. It inculcates, based on fear, a sense that we are helpless before the powers of technology, a god too big for our God. It does this by deploying phrases such as “existential threat,” “checkmate humanity,” “false information makes more money,” and “It’s plain as day that these services are killing people.” The doom is dialed up to maximum volume. Indeed, the journalist Casey Newton asked one of the film’s advisors about this aspect of the film and they said it was an intentional tactic. As many have also pointed out, the film uses these attention garnering techniques to critique social media platforms for using attention garnering techniques.
Christians should feel especially empowered—because of their belief in the Holy Spirit—to face any harms, bad habits, and discomforts they might feel around the use of social media. Resting on the power of the Holy Spirit, we have also been given reason and the ability to pursue “self-discipline.” At the beginning of time, in Genesis, God also gave us dominion over all the earth, including technologies. Being made in the image of God, He did not fashion us as helpless and hapless beings.
In addition to the power of the Holy Spirit within us and our dominion edict, there are helpful resources we can use to get a handle on any unhelpful habits social media may exacerbate. For example, Indistractable by Nir Eyal is a great resource on personalizing your response to social media and other distractions when there’s a sense that they’re getting the best of you. Mr. Eyal writes that the first step is to spend time examining why it is you might reach for social media. The social media companies themselves and other organizations like the Family Online Safety Institute offer up helpful suggestions for how to maintain good digital hygiene.
Technology and innovation have been a force for good throughout human history. We need to remember that nearly every technology we take for granted today was as at some point new, the way social media is to us now. We are empowered by God to face change and challenge with confidence, and we even can use technologies to participate with God in bringing about His Kingdom here on earth. The Areopagus at Mars Hill may not be that different from your Facebook post.
Instead of fostering these principles, films like The Social Dilemma do the opposite. Emerging technology should be considered wisely, especially by Christians and those of those of other faiths, but that means correctly identifying the problem, treating the facts accurately in their full context, and not basing our response in fear, but rather with a spirit of “power, love, and self-discipline.”