The Challenge of Social Media—From the Experts
August 17, 2021
The Challenge of Social Media—From the Experts

We’re all guilty of spending a little too much time on screens these days. Thank you to the chaos of the last 18 months for this. 

And not all of this screen time is due to distance learning. SO much of it is time on social media. It’s completely changed the way we interact with others and the agency we have over our time and even our thoughts. It’s true!

I recently watched The Social Dilemma, a documentary on Netflix. It explores the dangerous impact that social media has on all of us and how it’s specifically designed to manipulate our thoughts and our actions. The experts behind these platforms call themselves out!

The scariest part? We don’t even see it happening because it’s happening so slowly. 

Tune in to this episode as I explore the damage that’s being done thanks to social media and offer some ideas to open the conversation in schools and families to combat the issue. Social media isn’t bad but we do need to look at it with a more discerning view so we don’t use it as the crutch it’s become.


Jump Through the Conversation

  • [1:59] Screen time and teens
  • [3:33] Impact of social networking
  • [4:33] The experts of social media
  • [5:28] The most urgent problem of our time
  • [7:00] Profit at all costs driving tech companies
  • [7:23] If you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product
  • [8:05] Comparing illegal drugs and the software industry
  • [9:33] How social media is harming the psyche of our youth
  • [10:26] Social media as a source of loneliness
  • [11:39] Schools and families can combat these challenges
  • [13:47] Engagement and a reality check
  • [14:50] Pointers and takeaways from the documentary–right from the experts
  • [15:58] Get educated with Stanford Internet Observatory
  • [18:09] Business models with accountability and humane design


Links and Resources:

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Maureen O’Shaughnessy  0:03  

Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at Education Evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present-day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of Education Evolution and The Micro-School Coalition, where we are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, to reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  0:50  

If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  1:08  

We interrupt our normal Education Evolution focus on schools to address a very important topic. The new Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma” is a must watch. So this week, I’m pivoting away from innovation in our schools to address this topic that worries most of us: the impact of social media on the wellness of our tweens and teens. This topic is also worrying many in the tech industry, including those who have used persuasive technology to get our attention. It’s now out of control. Before watching this startling and eye-opening documentary, like many, I knew that most kids are on their screens more than we’d like. I know I’ve taken steps to mitigate screen use at home and at LEADPrep. At home, my kids didn’t have smartphones until high school. Before that, they had flip phones for texting in middle school. And that way, screentime could be monitored on the family computers. We also have never had televisions in our bedrooms, and devices were plugged in in my bedroom before bedtime, so there was no middle of the night texting or surfing the net going on. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  2:31  

At school, our students turn their phones in during class time. And even at lunchtime we have the first 10 minutes phone-free so that kids can eat and socialize. We also work on Internet safety and etiquette as topics at school. I thought that was as much as we could be doing, but social media has transformed how we all interact. While technology is doing good in many ways, this podcast is looking at the dark side of psychological manipulation. I hadn’t really understood the depth of social media’s infiltration into our minds prior to watching this. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  3:12  

So this Netflix 2020 documentary, “The Social Dilemma” is stunning. It’s up for an Emmy Award, and I can see why. This chilling and alarming hour and a half of information has my stomach tied in knots. The documentary-drama hybrid explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations. I’ve included the trailer link in the show notes. Of course, social media has some benefits. But it’s also taken over many young people’s relationships, and is constructing their daily reality. Homework, weekend plans, flirting, friendship, their sense of self and belonging, all within a system that is designed to capture and monetize our attention. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  4:11  

Let me share a few ideas from the documentary that really increase my understanding of the level of manipulation going on behind the scenes in social media. And then I want to tie it in to how social media is harming the psyches of our youth. Finally, I’ll share some ways we can take back control and help our youth do the same. “The Social Dilemma” documentary interviewed many social media founders and directors. Tristan Harris is the main presenter. Tristan is an American technology ethicist. He was trained in Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab and received his baccalaureate and master’s degrees from Stanford in the ethics of human persuasion. Early in his career, he worked as a design ethicist at Google. Now he’s the president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  5:06  

 I went beyond the documentary and looked at his 2017 TED Talk, and the link to that is in the show notes. It’s titled, “How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day.” In this talk, he explained there is a hidden goal driving all of the technology made: it’s the race for our attention. Since this results in advertisers and influencers getting into our heads, it has become monetized. So the folks with the most money have the most control over what we are seeing and then thinking. Pretty scary, right? Tristan calls this the most urgent problem of our time, the one underlying all other problems. He states it’s taking away our agency and shaping our conversations. It’s changing our democracy. And he even cites examples where it’s leading to offline harm. An example that came up in the documentary was Facebook pre-loading the violence in Myanmar, that fostered ethnic cleansing against Muslims. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  6:16  

So we’re all being sucked into this race for our attention. Apps have autoplays to keep us watching, and recommended similar feeds and videos to drive our attention the way advertisers want. And emotions like outrage tap deep into our brainstem, and that increases engagement such as likes, shares, and comments. So calm and reasonable information is not as desirable in this race for our attention. Which makes me think back to my journalism class in high school and how sensationalism is what sold newspapers. It’s definitely drama and outrage that sells a lot on our social media networks. In the documentary, this race for our attention was labeled as a disinformation-for-profit business model, and explained as the religion of profit at all costs, that is driving tech companies. Ouch, profit at all costs. We are seeing this cost with our youth. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  7:24  

I found several of the quotes in the documentary to be disconcerting and disturbing. Three in particular. The first: “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” And that’s attributed to Daniel Hoevermann. So Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and virtual reality pioneer, responded with a slight disagreement, and said, “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.” So this is mind altering, happening slowly so that we don’t even see it. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  8:04  

The second quote: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs, and software.” Whew. That’s attributed to Edward Tufte. And it’s unsettling to consider that some of the most powerful people in the world refer to human beings as “users” of their product. Of course, this adds to social media dehumanization, rapidly increasing our intake of photoshopped images without a thought of how that changes people psychologically or emotionally. Think about how it’s changing our teens and their self image, their body images. But as long as they’re making money, it doesn’t seem like anything else matters. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  8:52  

The third quote: “Technology is overpowering human nature. This is checkmate for humanity.” Wow, that is dark. Every creation, invention or object can be used wholesomely and with good intent, or used in manipulative agitation, or to purposefully cause harm. It’s imperative that we remain aware of the dangers our new technologies bring to the table. In Tristan’s talk, he says that we have to acknowledge that we are persuadable. We have to be aware and conscientious consumers. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  9:33  

And then there were two more quotes that really tied into how social media is harming the psyche of our youth. Chamath Palihapitiya is the CEO of Social Capital. He states, “We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in the short term signals, hearts likes thumbs up, and we conflate that was value and we conflate it with truth. And instead, what it is, is a fake brittle popularity, that’s short term, and that leaves you even more vacant and empty than you felt before. And that forces you into a vicious cycle. Think about that compounded by 2 billion people. And then think about how people are reacting to these perceptions of others.” It’s an insane, endless process. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  10:34  

As college student, Emily White of the Utah Statesman writes, “Social media has proved to be a source of loneliness, and constant comparison. Likes and shares aren’t a true or accurate indication of how much someone cares or doesn’t care about you. Comparison between yourself and the doctored photos on social media creates a hurt that isn’t examined enough, and the whole world is doing it. The whole world is immersed in a loneliness and feeling of inadequacy, impairing our ability to be there for each other because we’re so deep into our own hurt to heal others.” Our youth are in a very impressionable phase of development, pushing away from parents and leaning on peers. This false reality on social media is leading to anxiety, self doubt, depression, and impossible perfectionism. This is why I’m devoting this podcast to this topic. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  11:35  

Schools and families can do many things to address student wellness, but we must rest back the influence social media has on our youth. Information can combat this hold social media has over our youth and us adults. LEADPrep is following the suggestion to host a screening of “The Social Dilemma.” Once school starts, we will be screening the documentary with our students and we will have student-led discussions. We are also looking at a remote student-led screening and discussion for LEADPrep families. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  12:08  

The second quote from the documentary, made by Tristan, that directly impacts our youth is: “We are training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable, or lonely, or uncertain, or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves that is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that.” Wow. A digital pacifier? And atrophying our ability to deal with discomfort? On a global scale, our ability to handle negative situations or experiences is rapidly deteriorating. By using our cell phones as a crutch, we are essentially disabling our ability to connect with everyone around us. We’re turning off our wifi and going into airplane mode, not on our phones, but in real life. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  13:08  

But there are ways to move forward. Let me share some of the ways we can take back control and help our youth do the same. Tristan’s organization, The Center for Humane Technology, is a nonprofit and it’s dedicated to radically reimagining the digital infrastructure. Its mission is to drive a comprehensive shift toward humane technology that supports the collective well-being, democracy, and shared information environment. So they have a list of actions that parents and educators can take today. Check out the link in the show notes. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  13:45  

I’ll share the first suggestion: it’s to engage youth and provide them with a reality check. And they have a really cool image of the My Social Truth, which is a platform for young people to share their experience on social media. And they’ve found that stories like these are the best place to start a conversation with family and friends. You can read these stories, discuss them with your loved ones, and share your own. They have highlights like kids saying, “Deleting this app was the best thing I ever did for myself.” Or “I thought it would be fun to download Tik Tok and it ruined my life.” Or “I was in a pro-anorexia group when I was in seventh grade.” So it shows the other side and you get to hear real human storie and that’s a great place for teens to start. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  14:37  

All of the tech innovators in the documentary had suggestions for how to back it up. And they sharde that, while that what they had started was for good, they realize it’s out of control and some of them are feeling pretty screen-addicted. Some of their suggestions include turning off notifications; never accepting the videos recommended, always choose; check out Chrome extensions to filter ads and content; fact check before you share; vote with your clicks; and get lots of kinds of information. So follow folks with differing views so that you don’t become myopic and go down a rabbit hole. And these tech folks don’t let their kids have much screentime, they really monitor it. So they’re very aware of this danger. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  15:29  

One parent consultant uses these three rules: get all devices out of bedrooms, no social media until high school, and work out a time budget for screentime with your kids. One of the tech designers of this persuasion, now wants to be a voice that is free from the manipulation. So he’s deleted all of his social media accounts, and he encourages others delete some, if not all of their accounts. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  15:57  

So do you want a little more information to help become educated? The Stanford Internet Observatory is two years old. On its site, it explains, “No area of society has avoided disruption by new internet technologies, democracy MEDIA EDUCATION, these fields will face continued upheavals as we deal with the impact of billions of people having access to both high quality information and disinformation on demand.”


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  16:31  

Unfortunately, the political and social sciences have been slow to build their capabilities to study the negative impact of technology, particularly due to a lack of data access, information processing resources, and the individuals with the necessary backgrounds to sift through exabytes of data. So the Stanford Internet Observatory is a cross-disciplinary program of research, teaching and policy engagement for the study of abuse in current information technologies, with a focus on social media. So they are about being a force for good. They sound like a neutral voice and a way for us to get unbiased information. They have events that you can attend, a recent one was with, it was confronting health misinformation with the Surgeon General. They also have classes, they have the hack lab, trust and safety engineering, online open source investigation. So that would be another way for you and your youth to start to look at what’s going on in social media and be objective consumers. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  17:38  

Also, we can demand regulation. As Tristan reminded us in the documentary, we’ve had regulation to protect our children from certain types of advertising, as they watch Saturday morning cartoons. TV has much regulation in place, although many of us may want a little more. Tech is good and bad and needs regulations. Before we have civil war from willful ignorance, as one doomsayer mentioned, new business models, beyond profit above all, that have accountability systems have to be put in place. We can demand these products be designed humanely. We can use these persuasion algorithms to create a design renaissance. How about looking at Tristan’s talk ideas to create ways to protect against thoughts we don’t want, and to empower us to live the timeline we do want. Then instead of being on what the documentary calls “the fast track to dystopia,” we could use a find and replace feature to free us from screen time and do more of what we want. We would no longer be handicapping our attention, but rather would have the ability to have a superhuman focus about what we care about. Ah, from that place, we could guide our youth past Snapchat filters of pouty faces, or likes and follows to spaces that align with their true passions and purpose. This would be a social media that is a force for good. Let’s do it.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  19:32  

I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner-centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit for a free 15 minute call, and let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  20:09  

Education Evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued, and thriving. We need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  20:30  

I’d be so grateful if you’d head over to your podcast app to give a great rating and review if you found this episode valuable. Don’t wait. Please do it right now before you forget. I really appreciate it.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  20:49  

Thank you for listening. Signing off, I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.


Transcribed by


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