‘Smartphones are taking control of our minds’

Anti-social media: One scientist predicts that civilisation could end within 20 years.

Could Facebook start a civil war? In a new documentary, experts on social media explain how its algorithms are manipulating us – and warn that the consequences could be disastrous.

A family is sitting down to supper. The mother announces that they are going to eat without the distraction of smartphones – so she collects everyone’s phones and puts them in a glass jar with a timed lock. But shortly afterwards there is a crash: one of her daughters has got up and smashed the jar with a hammer.

This example of social media addiction was invented for the purposes of a documentary – but the rest of The Social Dilemma deals in serious facts. People who have held senior positions in companies such as Facebook outline why we cannot leave our phones alone, with the average person in the UK spending three hours a day staring at the small screen.

Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, sums it up: “If you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product.” Social media companies make money not by charging us for their services, but by minutely analysing our online habits to work out what interests and excites us most.

They can then say to businesses, “Out of all the people in the world, we know which ones are most likely to buy your products. Advertise with us and you are sure to reach them.”

“What I want people to know,” says former Twitter executive Jeff Seibert, “is that everything they’re doing online is being watched, is being tracked, is being measured – every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded: exactly what image you stop and look at, and for how long. They know when people are sad, they know when people are depressed.”

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Harris says, are all competing to keep us looking at our screens. “There’s the engagement goal, to keep up your usage, to keep you scrolling. There’s the growth goal, to keep you coming back and inviting more friends … Each of these goals is powered by algorithms whose job is to figure out what to show you.”

In a forthcoming book, Reality and Other Stories, John Lanchester argues that we are being manipulated at a psychological level so deep that we do not realise it is happening.

Among weaknesses these algorithms play on are “bad forecasting” – our inability to work out how much time we are going to spend on something; the fear of missing out; and the addictiveness of activities that require little or no effort, such as one-click ordering or automatically watching the next video suggested for us.

The effect of the algorithms is to reinforce our existing preferences – and prejudices. Two people googling “climate change” can get completely different results. If the computer thinks you are an environmentalist, it might supply the word “disaster”; if it identifies you as a sceptic, it might supply “hoax”.

The political result, says ex-Twitter engineer Justin Rosenstein, is that people are increasingly polarised. “You look over at the other side and think, ‘How can these people be so stupid? Look at all this information that I’m seeing!’ And the answer is that they’re not seeing that information.”

Could Facebook start a civil war?

Tag wrestling

Some say, no. There are two sides to everything, and the documentary is taking a very negative view of social media, which is also a powerful force for good: it can reunite families and find organ donors. People join Facebook because they want to see what their friends are doing. Anyone with any intelligence can work out whether the sites Google sends them to are reliable sources of information.

Others, including Tristan Harris, argue that political polarisation because of social media, and the rise of fake news, have made civil war a real possibility. “Imagine a world where no one believes anything is true. Everyone believes the government’s lying to them, everything is a conspiracy theory: ‘I shouldn’t trust anyone, I hate the other side.’ That’s where all of this is heading.”

You Decide

  1. Should social-media companies be forced to reveal how much money they are making by targeting you with advertisements?
  2. Is artificial intelligence as great a threat to humanity as climate change?


  1. A school particularly favoured by people in California’s tech industry is the San Francisco Waldorf School, which does not allow phones or laptops. Students there were asked to analyse their phone use and write a technology policy for the school. Write a report describing how much you think you use your phone each week.
  2. Write a story about a rogue algorithm that starts showing people all the things they least want to see.

Some People Say...

“Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.”

Sophocles circa (497–406BC), Greek philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that there has been a huge increase in depression and anxiety among young people since the majority acquired smartphones. Among 15-to-19-year-olds in the US, admissions to hospital for self-harming have risen by 62% in the last decade, and suicides by 70%. For 10-to-14-year-olds, the figures are 189% and 151%. According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, young people are also less inclined to take risks: fewer are learning to drive, and fewer go out on dates.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how to reduce the influence of smartphones. In the words of Anna Lembke, a doctor of addictive medicine, “Social media is a drug. We have a basic, biological imperative to connect with other people that directly affects the release of dopamine on our neural pathway.” Even the interviewees in the documentary, with all their inside knowledge, admit that they have had difficulty in giving it up.

Word Watch

A film with a factual narrative. One of the most famous documentaries of modern times is An Inconvenient Truth, about climate change.
Tristan Harris
The co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology in the US, he has been described as “the nearest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”.
Formulas used for problem-solving by a computer. The word comes from the name of a 9th-century Arab mathematician.
John Lanchester
British journalist and novelist. His books include How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say – And What It Really Means.
Made to behave in a certain way. It comes from the Latin “manus”, meaning hand.
A deceitful trick. It probably derives from the word “hocus”, meaning a magician.
Separated in their views by a great distance, as the North and South Poles are separated geographically.

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