Smartphone and the a-social media

Anjali Jhangiani
Monday, 19 August 2019

We speak to Diana Martin, executive producer of Smartphones — The Dark Side, about the popular concerns of social media and how it is affecting human behaviour

Whether you want to order lunch or connect with an old pal from college, you can do it all on your smartphone. What started off as a useful tool to have, has now become something that causes anxiety when it is away from you even for a minute. Everyone is always glued to their phones, and this is mostly because of social media. Diana Martin, a producer with BBC Natural History Unit, known for working on series like Trump: What next, Inside Number 10 - Deal or no Deal, talks about her latest project, Smartphones –— The Dark Side which features a Facebook manager talking about how the goal of these social media portals is to get users addicted and sell their time, and the creator of the Like button warning viewers of the dangers of social media addiction. 

What was one revelation while shooting for the show that left you shocked/surprised? 
This film is about something we are dealing with day in and day out, like the endless drowning effect of social media. This is not shocking, because we deal with it on a daily basis. It’s about how something that feels so inoculate has such a strong impact on our habits and behaviours. And how companies that deploy such tricks have done it deliberately in order to manipulate our habits. 

What is your take on the whole privacy controversy? 
This film was commissioned because we wanted to look at the other issue — whether or not we are addicted to our smartphones. But, personally, I will say that this is the biggest question of our time. Governments are having to rustle their regulatory role, and it really is an important matter. One of the effects of this is how big companies are getting hold of our data and we are giving them what they want.  

How does one know that they are addicted to social media?
This is a question we were very careful not to oversimplify. Though this is not a science film, we do acknowledge that there are different understandings of addictions really. My understanding was that there are addictions with drugs like heroine, or tobacco, and habit-forming nature of smartphone is probably different from that. 

Scientists are completely mixed about this. Some of them think it is an addiction like a drug, others feel it is a habit, and so either way companies have encouraged our use of social media and smartphones in a way that lets them understand our behaviour. Two-three people who used to work for big social media companies are now saying, ‘Look I’ve given up because I’m also aware of what they are trying to do to us. I’m aware of how we’re being manipulated.’ And we’ve got them explaining this on the film.” 

How can you possibly avoid getting addicted to your smartphone now that everything is online? 
That is the point we were very keen to make throughout the film. Our phone is full of wonderful things as well. It helps us work, keep in touch with our friends, families and so on. So this was absolutely not a film that disapproves of having a phone at all. And of course we’re all depending on our smartphones. There were parents, with their children at home, on the crew who were travelling all over America. Their phones were their lifelines. 

This is not a kind of condemnation of smartphone or applications per se. But if anything, we hope viewers become a bit more aware of what they’re doing when they are scrolling through their Instagram feed or spending half an hour on Twitter liking tweets. 

The film aims at making them a bit more aware of what they’re doing and whether or not they should invest their time doing it. Several of us have children, and we’re very aware particularly of the grip that smartphones and other devices have over young children and teenagers. As parents, we want to know what should we do — should I say stop? Should I not give them a smartphone? Obviously you can’t get the answer from the film, but it does give the audience something to chew over. 

Did you look at this issue from a developing country’s point of view?
This film didn’t do that. I think it maybe interesting to see what the different advantages and disadvantages of social media are in developing and developed countries. I am personally interested in the use of social media by authoritarian regime, how governments are using social media platforms to advertise, to control the behaviour of the public not just during election campaigns, but outside elections as well. Obviously, there have been huge debates around that with Donald Trump and the Brexit in the UK. But in the developing world I know much less about it. The potential is quite frightening. It would be very interesting to do a film about that. 

ST Reader Service
Smartphones — The Dark Side premieres on August 31 at 9 pm on Sony BBC Earth

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