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Addicted to social media, but won't accept it? Filed on September 15, 2020
A still from Netflix show The Social Dilemma

Yes, social media is designed to keep us hooked, but the onus to 'unhook' is also partly on us

A few weeks ago, I downloaded an app to monitor my social media consumption. It was to challenge my partner's claim that I was married to my phone instead of him. The daily stats, though, are a cruel reminder. They suggest I spend seven hours in a day browsing through my social media apps. Seven hours a day. Forty-nine hours in a week. Two hundred and ten hours in a month. All spent on the troika of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (I dare not venture into other platforms conquered by the younger millennials). Big deal, I tell myself, as journalists, we ought to keep ourselves updated. What I do not tell myself is that I am simply addicted. Whenever there is an empty moment, I reach out to my phone to find a purpose. My mornings begin with a quick check on who's checked on me on WhatsApp, and nights end up scrolling through Insta stories of people familiar as well as unfamiliar. Could I do things differently? Hell, yes. But is the onus on me to do things differently on technology? That's the grey area I discovered upon watching the new Netflix series, The Social Dilemma.   
Over the weekend, I saw many posts declaring the moral imperative to watch the series, ironically, on the very platforms dissed in The Social Dilemma. As my curiosity piqued, I decided to watch the show. The unravelling happens through a series of conversations and confessions by former poster boys of the Big Tech. From an early investor in a social media firm to a design expert to an erstwhile ethicist, various cast of characters come together to confess where technology behind designing these apps has gone wrong to hack our minds. We are, it is suggested, personas whose online activities are monitored and choices inadvertently crafted to suit vested interests. This is depicted through a fictionalised account of social media consumption patterns among teens.
There's little that you may not already know, the shock value is in the finer details spelt out by the former Silicon Valley heroes. There is a reason why, right after you watch your favourite video, a similar one follows. Our attention spans are the Big Tech's biggest selling point. A particularly unsettling scene is one where a family sits down for a dinner upon the condition that no one will look at their phones. Desperate, the youngest teen breaks into the glass jar where the mobiles have been kept, takes her device and rushes upstairs. Later in the show, we also see her eyes well up as somebody comments on her 'big ears'. Teen or adult, our sense of self is crafted by the number of likes and comments our posts fetch us on the Internet. This has not only impacted our morale, but as the show states, has increased rate of depression and anxiety among teens.
Adults are not vastly different. A bi-monthly ritual sees me deleting my Facebook app on the phone in order to 'connect' with the real world only to reinstall it a week later. The reasons are more complex. The real world often feels more difficult. Between checking on someone personally and looking at their social media feeds, the latter feels easier because it entails giving less of yourself to others. This disconnect, the series warns us, will be our undoing.
We have enough to thank social media for in these trying times. Cannot travel to meet family? Zoom. Want to check on friends? WhatsApp. As the nouns have turned to verbs, we have become products in the larger scheme of Big Tech. As a famous line in the show states, "If you are not paying for the product, you are the product." Thinking, living, breathing products that are evolving at a lesser pace than the technologies designed for us.  
Yes, social media is designed to keep us hooked, but the onus to 'unhook' is also partly on us. Especially when we know what the technology in question is doing to us. Whether it be turning off notifications on reducing the number of hours spent, we all have to find our own way out of the giant mess Big Tech created as it sought to better our lives. Technology will always be scrutinised, sometimes even by those who created it. But we will do well to establish a more reasonable relationship with it.

Anamika Chatterjee

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