Speculations over the kinds of personal data collected from social media users have been an emerging concern over the past few years. However, a new documentary released by Netflix; ‘The Social Dilemma’, exposes just how much information companies gain from us using their online services, and the effect this has on our lives.

The premise of the film is this: we, as users of Facebook, Google, Instagram, Pinterest, and all these other services have always believed that our data is being sold for a profit. That is not correct. In fact, our data is being used to build algorithms that can predict the kind of content and advertising that is best tailored to us. It is these algorithms that are then sold. And the kind of data they are collecting is not what you would expect either.

In the documentary, former design ethicist for Google, Tristan Harris, spoke of the kinds of data being harvested from product users:

‘All the things we’ve ever done, all the clicks we’ve ever made, all the videos we’ve watched, all the likes, that all gets brought back into building a more and more accurate model. The model, once you have it, you can predict the kinds of things that person does’.

The main concern affiliated with these kinds of algorithms is the inevitable consequence of addiction. Biologist, Dr. Anna Lembke of Stanford University also made an appearance in the documentary. She drew a direct parallel between addiction and the systems used to goad us into spending more and more time on our phones, stating that our need to connect with other people (through things like social media) ‘directly affects the release of dopamine in the reward pathways’.

Here lies the apparent purpose of the documentary – to open the public’s eyes to just how sophisticated online programs are getting; how close they are to creating digital twins for real people. To recommend a new video, a new post, another person to follow. I asked a student at a Woking College to comment on how watching the documentary has changed her perception of social media and the threat it poses to an emerging technological generation. She told me:

‘The documentary made me realise more serious and global threats posed by social media and not just the smaller dangers we are warned about as children.’

‘I am definitely concerned for our generation and the generations to come as we may become less open to the views and others and have less self-esteem.’

The online world is growing and improving at a rate that we simply cannot keep up with. The best way to combat this is to keep ourselves educated about the apps that we are using, and make sure we are aware of how much of our time we spend on devices.