The Social Dilemma, a documentary on Netflix has taken the world by storm. In case you haven’t seen it yet, let me give you a short summary.
Social media in the modern world has taken over our lives. The documentary details how it is impacting us at a basic psychological level as individuals as well as at the scale of society at large. The increase in suicide rates in teenagers and the increased polarization in the political landscape at a world stage. The documentary also points out how the digital world ans the real, physical world are now interacting and affecting each other; with people now behaving under the influence of the things they see on social media.
But what does that have to do with me?
Why does this story belong on a mental health blog?
PARANOIA, SOCIAL MEDIA AND ME
Let me take you back to 2016.
This was a time when I was under treatment for clinical depression and regularly visited my psychologist in Bangalore. Now hold on. I know what you are thinking.
“Just another story of someone being courageous and coming through their struggles to inspire others”
Well no. This isn’t it. At least not this time.
In our conversations, trust was an important point of discussion. It was one of the few things I would open up about and let others know my thoughts.
“Why don’t you trust the things you see?” my psychologist would ask.
“Well, most of the things I see come from social media. And social media is run by algorithms. I only see the things I like and those that agree with me. It is not a true representation of the world.” I would reply with absolute disinterest.
The disinterest came not from a disdain for the doctor but an idea that anyone who didn’t already know this was an A-grade idiot. These facts came as simple knowledge to me which is why it always surprised me when people inevitable asked the following question,
“And how do you think they work?”
“Social media companies track everything you do. What you like, what you see, how long you see it, what you scroll past, who you interact with, what you interact about, where do you do it from and everything else possible. They have all this data on you and the algorithms give you content depending on your ‘interests’. When you see a post which has “Suggested for you” written on top of it, that is the algorithm at play. If you watch it, the algorithm learns to show you more of it. If you don’t, the algorithm learns not to show you more things like it. There is no escape from it. You just have to understand this is happening and be sure that you don’t let it affect you too much.”
The psychologist stares at me for a while in absolute silence. Notes something in their pad and moves on.
A few weeks later I got a psychological assessment report which suggested that I had some paranoid traits because I believed that huge corporations were tracking me and trying to influence my thoughts and emotions.
Paranoid traits. For simply saying something that was official policy of these companies at the time.
A few months later, in a different city, with a different psychologist, I had the same conversation. As soon as I finished telling her about how we are being tracked by the social media companies, this was what followed.
“You…really….believe that?” said the psychologist trying to comfort me, maintaining eye contact, with a wry smile on the face, leaning towards me to show ‘empathy’ as if what I was saying were the incoherent ramblings of a madman.
The purpose of writing this article is not to seek vindication or establish some form of ‘superiority’ over the professionals, it is to make you question how we decide what is normal and not. Just because someone pays more attention to something that is not a mainstream topic, does that mean that we should dismiss their concerns as being paranoid or traits of psychoticism?
The theory of mental illnesses is based on 4 pillars also known as the 4 D’s. These are 1) Deviation 2) Distress 3) Dysfunction and 4) Duration. A pattern of thought, emotions or behaviours which is deviant from the norms of the culture, causes distress to the individual, leads to dysfunction and persists for a long time is considered a mental illness or, at least, a sign of it.
Now, which of these was effected at the time?
The trust, or more accurately, the mistrust that I have towards the social media companies and what I consume there continues but it is not degrading the quality of my life is it? It is actually making me actively seek information that contradicts my views. How can this be considered a trait of paranoia? This is one of the persistent weaknesses of psychotherapy.
What deserves to be treated and what does not is still determined by the spirit of the times. With the release of the documentary, more people will be mindful of the judgements they make on social media. In the long term, it will trickle down into the profession of therapy too. At that time, what I said will not be considered a trait of paranoia.
It has taken a long time for psychiatry and psychology to move away from terming any type of deviant behaviour as a symptom of an illness but it seems like that idea still lingers on. It wasn’t long back that similar things were said to homosexual folks as well. Now, finally, we have come to accept it as the norm.
And while it is a fact in the psychiatric academic circles that homosexuality is not something that can be or should be treated, many still continue to try and treat through electroconvulsive therapy. These people let their preconceived notions mask the scientific facts.
How many professionals like this are there?
The Social Dilemma that our society faces today with regards to social media and its algorithms is an important one but there is another dilemma running in parallel along with it, the Psychiatric Dilemma.
What is treated, and what is not?
In case you want to read more on The Social Dilemma without watching it, read this article,