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Director Matt gives his thoughts on the ‘Social Dilemma’

If you haven’t heard about it or watched “The Social Dilemma” yet, I highly recommend that you carve out an hour and a half of time to do so. While the documentary was well done, the entertainment value alone is peripheral to it’s eye-opening appeal for people to better understand the control technology (and especially social applications) have on us as a society. Originally, the internet was intended as a force for good. Nobody ever expected the consequences we’re now seeing but the fact is we’ve reached a crossroads between the benefits and the threats of a digitized lifestyle and this documentary has sounded the alarm for parents and young people alike to understand its challenges in a rapidly changing landscape. 

It’s easy today to lose sight of the fact that tools like Facebook, Instagram & Google actually have created some wonderful things in the world. They’ve reunited lost family members, they’ve found organ donors and there are meaningful systemic changes happening around the world because of these platforms. However, these platforms also have immeasurable negative effects on unassuming tweens and can have a significant impact on their behavior and emotional well being, especially during these critical years of social development and identity. These unintended effects can be directly linked to the core business model of these companies which is to keep people engaged on the screen. These companies are thinking, “Let’s figure out how to get as much of this person’s attention as we possibly can. How much of their life can we get to give to us?” And that’s the dark side of social media that needs to be recognized and examined. 

As it is now, we’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when they are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid, they have a digital pacifier for themselves, which is atrophying their own ability to deal directly with those emotions.  A whole generation is more anxious, depressed and fragile. Young people are much less comfortable taking risks, the rates at which they get drivers licenses is dropping, the number who have ever gone out on a date or had any kind of romantic interaction is dropping rapidly and there is a causal relationship between the rise of these rates and the rise of social media use. 

It’s not surprising that America leads the world in sending kids off to college, but we’re the last place amongst first world countries in graduation rates. The reason is because kids are coming to college unprepared. They don’t have the resiliency and building blocks to succeed. Businesses are saying there’s a talent crisis. What skills are these businesses looking for: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity. 21st century skills. Despite the capabilities of today’s digital devices, young people are spending little time creating their own content. Their screen use tends to be dominated by watching videos and television shows, playing games and using social media. The use of the devices for reading, writing or creating content “remains minimal,” with no more than 1 in 10 of teens and tweens saying they enjoy things like making digital art and graphics, creating digital music, coding or designing or modifying their own video games. Even though kids have the ability to create and build some amazing things with this technology, they seemingly aren’t taking advantage of the best part of these tools. Instead, it’s all about getting the next “like” and this leads me to discuss the high potential for addiction. 

Social media acts like a drug because we, as humans, have an engrained, biological imperative to connect with other people that directly affects the release of dopamine in the reward pathway. We have that innate need that drives us to come together, live in communities, to find mates, to propagate our species; so there’s no doubt that a vehicle like social media, which optimizes this connection between people, is going to have the potential for addiction. It’s just not that it’s controlling where kids spend their attention, especially social media starts to dig deeper and deeper down into the brain stem and starts to take over kids’ sense of self worth and identity. Risks include the potential for youth to be exposed to harmful messages online and for them to become more socially isolated from their peers due to more individualized content viewing.

I’ve laid out some of the ways that social media and the internet are affecting our children but I don’t want you to think there’s no hope to counteract its negative effects. No surprise here, but Camp truly is the value proposition! I believe camps have inherently answered this call and have been proactively promoting the benefits of an “unplugged” summer for years. However, with the release of this documentary and more studies exposing the underlying problems with social media and kids, there is no doubt in my mind that we are uniquely positioned to bring this issue to light and stand tall as a viable solution to this generational challenge. While phones and tablets are involved in so many facets of everyday life, camp may be the last institution left to show our young people the benefits of living life unplugged. 

So what can we do?

Dr. Ameera Nauman says it’s critical for parents of school age children to monitor any computer or screen use and that it’s important to balance screen time with other healthy behaviors. Dr. Nauman encourages children to be active 15 minutes for every hour of screen time and she stresses limiting overall screen time to two hours a day, excluding homework. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using its tool to develop a healthy media plan that can be customized to a child or the entire family. The tool, accessible here, has time calculators to help regulate time spent on screens versus other activities important to health including sleep, exercise, and family engagement.

In a few months I’m going to be a father and as excited as I am to welcome my baby girl into this world, navigating our dependence on these tools provides a bit of angst. My wife and I have already begun discussing how we will integrate technology into her life and how we plan to remain vigilant in balancing her exposure to the digital world and the real world. We fully understand that she will be living in a world of social media, there’s no escaping that. For us, we just want to make sure we are controlling its use, not the other way around. I believe there are ways to help her engage responsibly and we’ll strive to strike a healthy and practical balance between these competing forces. For instance, we have already downloaded an app (ironic, huh) called Moment, which monitors and tracks our social media use to ensure we’re staying in the moment and not missing out on all the beauty that’s happening in front of our noses. We also are determined to give our daughter fulfilling (and fun!) tech-free experiences, like a tradition of morning family walks, to demonstrate to her the importance of time away from screens. Lastly, we plan to fill our social circle (as much as we possibly can) with other like minded parents who also understand the value of human connection and it’s everlasting importance in a child’s growth through adolescence and beyond.