Ben, a young man, hovers helplessly above three A.I.s. They each work interdependently to keep him in his mindless condition and blind absorption into his phone.

Mount St. Joseph News


Ben, a young man, hovers helplessly above three A.I.s. They each work interdependently to keep him in his mindless condition and blind absorption into his phone. The A.I.s, referred to as “Advertisement,” “Engagement,” and “Growth,” toss Ben around like a ragdoll between screens displaying content specifically chosen to maintain his fixation as he remains in his state of Matrix-like suspension.


Ben’s eyes are dead. He doesn’t appear aware of the robotic and mechanical nature of his very existence. He doesn’t have autonomy anymore—no semblance of control or consciousness over his own body. He is left to the mercy of the cold, unfeeling heartlessness of artifical intelligence. This is the new nature of life according to Netflix’s The Social Dilemma. Viewers soon learn that Ben is only one of millions of victims imprisoned by a computer elite, which uses one of the mightiest, most salient, most arresting, most compelling creations of mankind—social media.


It is one of the most pervasive tenets of modern life in America. For a considerable majority of today’s youth and a plenitude of adults, social networking services like those of Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, among others, serve as defining points of identity and lifestyle. This reality, in and of itself, already poses a threat to and raises concern for the well-being—both psychological and physiological—of hundreds of millions of people, if not billions. So, then, the question becomes: what do we do about it, if anything at all? Should we, in fact, do something to change social media or our use of it?


First, it’s important to thoroughly and accurately define the problem. It is often recognized by many that social media can indeed negatively impact users, and yet, that doesn’t seem to affect usage or interfacing much. Therefore, perhaps it would be beneficial and catalytic to clearly identify how social media can cause the problems so many superficially acknowledge.


Mariah Dern, a counselor from MSJ’s Wellness Center, suggests that as with “many things in life, it is the use of something without boundaries/limits that can exacerbate any symptom [of mental illness] that you are predisposed to. With clear boundaries, social media can be a wonderful tool for connection, self-discovery, and education. Without clear boundaries, social media can turn into something that is not always healthy and sometimes even dangerous.”


Social networking, moreover, is such a beautifully uniting prospect by its very nature—bridging the many discrepancies and breaking infinitely more barriers between all walks of life. However, it is the usage of such a tool that can cause immense thoughtlessness and destruction, as almost anything can be used for good or evil, creation or carnage, truth or deceit. “...[W]ith anything online,” Dern notes, “distinguishing between fact and fiction takes time and research.”


But the effects of social media don’t stop here. In fact, the potentialities of social media are endless, evidenced by the existence of a harmful mixture of the aforementioned realities of online networking. The worsening impacts that said activity can have on a healthy mentality, for instance, can even be caused by the misleading essence of social media itself. As President of the Student Government Association Brooke Rouse saya, “Often, social media portrays an unreachable expectation of life. The result is that we are wired to think our lives aren't as perfect or fulfilled as the lives of others portrayed on social media. This can absolutely cause depression and anxiety because you are constantly wrestling on how to achieve an unattainable goal.”


The troublesome notion that worth between people is comparable—as alarming as that is—is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to determining the extent of which social media and mental illness have become infused into the most profound aspects of modern existence. For example, as Dern notes, “Language and access to information [have] changed a lot in the last few decades.” The advent of the internet and online communication provides a majority of the populace with an abundance of knowledge on psychological phenomena, consequently adhering the complexities of mental health to the collective consciousness. Linguistic and colloquial intricacies have evolved massively. Whereas our grandparents may have referred to those suffering from anxiety disorders as “homebodies” and post-partum depression as having the “‘baby blues” in Dern’s words, we better understand now, however marginally, the multiplicities of the mind—and it has become a part of our identities.


What’s more, these things also have a basis in the capitalistic tendencies of primarily Western societies—threatening the existential identity of said civilizations. “What we are learning about social media,” Dern observes, “is that there is always a product and a consumer and fear is an easy avenue towards revenue.” As with most innovations, people often have a penchant for simplifying their capacities into monetary endeavors—as is our nature. Witnessing the deification and the apparent perfection of celebrities and influencers online, one recognizes that the “American Dream” has metamorphosed into merely attaining possessions and bettering our physical appearances.


Rouse mirrors this idea as she states, “Social media perpetuates societal expectations of beauty and success...whether that be a perfect ‘beach bod,’ a perfect family, or equating achievement with materialistic purchases. The scary thing is the reality of all the young kids who are following this romanticized idea of what happiness is. You think, ‘Well, my house isn't that big,’ or ‘No one commented on my picture,’ and it does damaging stuff to your mental wallpaper.”


With the atrocious monstrosities of social media intact—persisting—burgeoning—our own creations devising our downfall—our focus settles onto a desperate need for a solution. What are we to do with the vast chaotic wilderness that our technological behemoth has become? How could we possibly begin to combat that which inexorably vies for our constant attention and engrossment? That unrelenting leviathan killing us from the inside out?


Dern says that “counseling is often effective due to the real ‘back and forth’ conversation and connection with verbal and nonverbal cues between two individuals. What social media often lacks, is the ‘back and forth’ piece of conversation; a lot is being said but the hard process of challenging and reflecting on our previously held beliefs is often inaccessible.”


We mustn’t be afraid to challenge ourselves—to step outside of ourselves—and once again be willing to delve into the complex uncertainty that is humanity. We can’t simply stay and stagnate in the unchanging comforts of our virtual worlds; we need each other.


“I think it is important,” Rouse says, “to advocate for a societal change where a certain type of life is not the only one idolized.We should bring awareness that internal peace and happiness are not always provided when you are constantly staging an imaginary life or appearance for ‘likes’ or ‘follows’.”


But the end of the story is yet to be told. After productive change has taken effect and decisions are made based on warmth, mindfulness, and humanitarianism, Ben is freed from his electrical prison. With others being liberated, The Social Dilemma culminates in an extrication from the frigidity of machine and a meeting of human and human—face-to-face, heart-to-heart—all existent under a mere utterance of the word “Hello.”


The glint is back in Ben’s eye.