AGE; 11+

93 minutes; unrated Documentary with fictional scenes, 2020.

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TWM offers a worksheet for students to review before seeing the film and then to fill out after they have watched the movie. While not required for the lesson plan, teachers may want to review it. See Film Study Worksheet for a Documentary Seeking to Persuade the Viewer On a Matter of Political or Social Significance.


This documentary/drama hybrid explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.



Vincent Kartheiser, Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, Catalina Garayoa, Barbara Gehring, Chris Grundy, Sophia Hammons, Tristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailer Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox,Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randima Fernando, Jaron Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff, Anna Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renée DiResta


Jeff Orlowski


The Social Dilemma explores the unintended and devastating consequences of social media including: polarization, isolation, anxiety, low self-esteem, disorientation from reality, and even violence against self or others. It exposes how social media corporations exploit the human desire for attention, belonging, affirmation, and community in order to make a profit.

This Learning Guide adds information about one of the psychological mechanisms on which social media relies and places social media in the context of the advertising industry.  It provides information, vocabulary, discussion questions and projects to extend and confirm the lessons of the film.




Watch the movie with your children. Talk to them about the Neurological Common Currency Hypothesis and dopamine hits from social media.


Almost everyone in developed countries uses social media. We use it on the Internet and on our cell phones.  If controlled and ethically administered, social media enhances communication and is a benefit to society. However, if it is profit-centered, as it is today, social media can surround its users in a cocoon of altered reality, isolating us, enhancing polarization from other parts of society, and potentially dominating our lives.

The social media companies do this by capturing information about us. They know more about our interests, what we like, and how we think than we know ourselves. They market this information to people, companies, or interest groups (some controlled by foreign governments) seeking our attention, trying to sell products, or attempting to influence us. Perhaps the most dangerous is the sale of information to those seeking our attention because that includes people or organizations seeking to surreptitiously influence us and our opinions. Some of these groups seek to destroy our democracy.

Everyone who uses social media, to some extent feels the effects of the algorithms designed to appeal to basic human needs and drive usage.

The collateral damage of these efforts includes focused exposure to web sites of people who agree with the user or that exaggerate tendencies already present, an increase in isolation from other viewpoints, and exaggerated division in society. Over-use of social media can also increase loneliness, depression, poor self-image, and expose people to cyberbullying. For millions of the people most affected by social media, many of them children, social media has taken over their relationships, fostering feelings of inadequacy — all interfering with daily life.

The Neural Common Currency Hypothesis and Social Media.  Also called the “common currency hypothesis,” holds that positive inputs are converted into a common neural currency by the human brain to use in the computation of motivational values.  It asserts that when making a choice or evaluating whether to engage in a particular experience, the brain converts expected benefits into a common scale for comparison. (The theory was first put forward by economists to describe the way people make financial decisions.) Thus, the pleasure chemicals in the brain such as dopamine that are secreted when we value positive potential concrete experiences like the prospect of making money or going on a walk beside a beautiful river are the same chemicals released when we evaluate the prospect of social interactions, find out information that is pleasing, or merely satisfy our curiosity. Engaging in social media events and the prospect of receiving social media communications implicate the expectation of pleasure in the common neural currency.

While not as well accepted as some other scientific hypotheses such as the theory of gravity (to explain why objects fall to earth and why the planets orbit the sun) or the theory of evolution (to explain how species change over time), the neural common currency hypothesis is supported by many peer-reviewed scientific papers. As scientific research progresses, the Neural Common Currency Hypothesis will be subject to revision.  However, it provides an excellent conceptual framework for understanding the effects of social media on human behavior.

Humans are social beings. We have no armor to protect us from other animals, no claws or sharp teeth with which to defend or attack, and no fur to insulate us from the cold.  We cannot exist on our own outside of society. One way of looking at the success of the human species is that it comes from three things:  1) our intelligent brain; 2) our  hands and fingers and the resulting technology; and 3) our ability to socialize and cooperate with other human beings.

Social media allows us to connect with others in easy instantaneous ways.  And, social media is a buffered type of connection, without the complications of face-to-face meetings with other human beings in society, which are more uncertain and which require more energy and more personal commitment than merely tapping on a cell phone or clicking a mouse.

Ming Su, associate professor of neurology at University of California, Berkeley, co-author of a study that compared the dopamine rewards for obtaining even useless information to the rewards for obtaining items of intrinsic value, explained the  relationship between the Neural Common Currency Hypothesis and social media in this way,

… [T]he brain converts curiosity about information into the same common code it uses for money and other concrete rewards…. While the research does not directly address over-consumption of digital information, the fact that information engages the brain’s reward system is a necessary condition for the addiction cycle, . . . And it explains why we find those alerts saying we’ve been tagged in a photo so irresistible.

The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait . . . Just like junk food, this might be a situation where previously adaptive mechanisms get exploited now that we have unprecedented access to novel curiosities.

Quote from Your Brain Gets a Dopamine Hit From Information Technology Networks, 6/20/19

Social Media in the Context of the Advertising Industry:  To understand social media it helps to know about advertising. The socially beneficial function of advertising is to convey information about products and services. However, advertisers also try to increase the volume of sales by appealing to our emotions. For example, a commercial for toilet paper that shows a baby’s soft skin and says or implies that the brand of toilet paper being advertised is as soft as the baby’s skin, is trying to use the love that most people feel for babies to convince us to buy that brand of toilet paper. There is no actual relationship between toilet paper and a baby’s skin or love for babies.

Companies that advertise clothing usually show attractive people wearing what they are selling with the subliminal message that by purchasing and wearing the clothing, the customer will give the same impression as the attractive model. However, very few of the people who purchase the clothing will ever be as attractive as the model and, when wearing the clothing, they will not give the same impression as when the clothing is worn by the model.

But advertisers don’t stop with trying to compete with other companies producing things that we need. They use advertising to create a new want that is not a legitimate need. This can be seen in advertisements for clothing of the newest style that changes every year. (Some savvy consumers try keep their clothing that has gone out of style betting that in 10 or 20 years, the style will return as the “newest” fashion; it often does.) Other examples are the latest model of a car or truck, piece of jewelry, celebrity endorsed sneaker, cell phone, computer etc. There are even some industries that are totally invented and useless – like “pet plants” or the latest craze in dolls.

Our desire for fads can get totally out of hand as in the “cabbage patch riots” of 1983 in which customers at toy stores rioted to get their children the then current craze: cabbage patch dolls.

Then there is addiction, in which those who deal in products that act directly on the human brain, such as alcohol, tobacco, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, pain killers, and other drugs, legal and illegal, actually try to addict people to their products. Gambling companies do this as well. For example, the producers of slot machines calibrate their product so that the user gets dopamine hits every few seconds to keep them at the machine. Slot machines must all too often be serviced to clean the urine from users so entranced that they urinate at their seats rather than forgo the dopamine hits caused by the slots, even for the short time to use a bathroom.

One of the insights of the film is to add social media companies to the list of bad actors who use dopamine hits to cause addiction.

The “Singularity” and the “Point of Social Collapse”

Predictions are that unless action is taken, these two events will occur within the lifetime of today’s students.

The Singularity: Even now machines have better memories than people and can sort through much more data than people can remember or absorb. The advent of “big data” is promising new insights into problems that could otherwise not be solved.  Artificial intelligence (“AI”) programmers are developing machines that have greater than human skills at problem solving and invention. These machines are constantly improving their performance. For example, a computer program designed to look for patterns in the weather can sort through much more data than can be comprehended by the human mind. They can look for patterns that a human could never see.  With AI these capacities will be magnified.

The singularity is the point at which machines can autonomously improve their own software and design to create even more capable machines – far beyond human capacities.  Many human jobs are already becoming irrelevant and are being lost to computer automation. Other unforeseeable changes to human civilization will, no doubt, occur. The singularity is the boundary when artificial intelligence and automation are out of human control.


The Point of Social Collapse:   The movie makes the point that:

We were all looking for the moment when technology would overwhelm human strengths and intelligence. When is it going to cross the singularity, replace our jobs, be smarter than humans? But there’s this much earlier moment… when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses. This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification, the entire thing. This is overpowering human nature, and this is checkmate on humanity.

Are the movie makers correct when they claim that there is another tipping point that will occur that people have not foreseen until now, when technology and the greed of social media corporations destroy human society as we know it?  We can call this the “Point of Social Collapse” when society spins out of control and breaks down. [This is a TWM term and not used, so far as we know, by anyone else.] Will this happen? To control social media will we have to turn to all-seeing, all-controlling big brother dictatorship on the model of modern-day “communist” China? The incompetent U.S. reaction to the Corona-19 Pandemic, fueled in large part by distortions of the truth on social media, compared with the effective Chinese reaction to the Pandemic, is a case in point.


Autonomy is a cherished human value.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Liberty is defined as the quality or state of being free: the power to do as one pleases – which includes the power to make your own choices.   In society, liberty is constrained by the obligation to obey the law and to act ethically – we know about these limits and accept them because they are necessary for society to function properly.  In addition, in the long run, we all benefit from a society in which people obey the law and act ethically.

However, there are vast areas in which we can operate freely and choose what we want to do. This is the liberty referred to in the Declaration of Independence. What do we mean by the power to make a choice? In order to make a free choice, we must be able to evaluate different options and select the option that is most consistent with our values – with what we consider to be important. However, if we put ourselves into situations in which people can, without us knowing it, affect those choices through psychological manipulation, then we lose that part of our autonomy  – that part of our freedom.

The movie makes the point that addiction to social media monopolizes our attention, which is one of our most valuable resources. This, too,  is a loss of autonomy.



The lessons from this film and this Learning Guide can be enhanced by teaching students the following vocabulary.

Algorithm — a set of step-by-step procedures that provides the correct answer to a particular problem. In social media, algorithms take information that the social media companies have collected about their users and the provide advertisements, posts, and other information to the user according to the criteria that the social media company sets for that user.

Big Data:  Massive amounts of data – much more than a human being can comprehend — that can be fed into computers to allow them to search for patterns that people could not see.

Dopamine – a neurotransmitter made in the brain. It has many uses in the body, one of them one of them being to  act as a chemical messenger between neurons. It is released when the brain is experiencing a reward.

Dopamine hit – the pleasure chemicals in the brain released when someone receives a positive response from an activity, e.g., obtaining a “like” on social media.

Growth hacking – the process of using aspects of human psychology to obtain growth for a social media platform in the form of more user sign-ups and increased engagement.

Neural common currency hypothesis also called the common currency hypothesis – See discussion above.

The Point of Social Collapse – This is a term newly minted by TWM to describe the tipping point when social media and the resulting isolation, polarization, and spread of disinformation leads to the destruction of human society as we know it.

Positive intermittent reinforcement — a conditioning schedule in which a reward is not administered every time the desired response is performed.

Psychometric doppelganger — the description of your psychological traits, characteristics, and interests created by the social media companies for the purpose of predicting your preferences and behavior.

Hack people’s psychology — using your psychology against you.

The Singularity – The point at which artificial intelligence and the power of machines becomes so strong that technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, overwhelming humanity and signaling the end of the human era.

Tipping Point: the critical point at which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.

User — a customer of a drug dealer, a slot machine, or a social media company.


Class exercise – Secondary Social Media Persuasive Techniques

The primary technique of social media is to use the human desire for connection to activate the common neural currency of the brain.  However, there are also other techniques to attract and engage the social media user employed not only by the social media companies but also by websites who use the internet to sell products, to influence people, or simply to communicate information.  This class exercise will acquaint students with some of those techniques.

Working with students list some of the secondary social media techniques for advertisers and give examples: They include:

1. An authoritative source or a famous personality to support your claims – such as an endorsement from an expert, a media personality, or an influencer;

2. Using psychologically appropriate colors;

3. Providing persuasive content, including

a. Creating urgency and FOMO (fear of missing out);
b. Promises to let people in on secrets if they come to your site or join up;
c. Showing people that their friends love the product;
d. Being inclusive;
e. Being positive and happy;
f. Connecting with emotion;
g. Building curiosity.

4. Be Everywhere on the Internet;

5. Use attractive images that capture viewers’ attention and communicate content; this is especially true of attractive images of people; and

6. Give your audience something so that they will have a sense of obligation; use reciprocity.


This list was developed from the following web sites. They can also provide examples.

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1. The movie makes the point that:

We were all looking for the moment when technology would overwhelm human strengths and intelligence. When is it going to cross the singularity, replace our jobs, be smarter than humans? But there’s this much earlier moment… when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses. This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification, the entire thing. This is overpowering human nature, and this is checkmate on humanity.

Is there another tipping point that people have not foreseen until now, when technology and the greed of large organizations destroy human society as we know it. We can call it the “Point of Social Collapse” when society spins out of control and breaks down. What do you think about this observation – are we moving toward a “Point of Social Collapse?” Defend your answer.

If the information in the first formulation of this question has already been given to the class, ask the question this way, “Do you agree with the concept of ‘the Social Collapse’ even before we get to the Singularity? Justify your response. How close are we to social collapse?”


2. One commentator who reviewed the film said, “We all know the excruciating nightmare that is middle school, when all of a sudden you no longer take for granted what your parents tell you and decide that what you really need is to be considered cool or at least not a total loser by your friends at school. Now multiply that by the big, unregulated world of the internet. This is why there is a precipitous spike in anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide attempts by the girls of Gen Z, current middle and high schoolers, as much as triple in some categories.”

Do you agree with this comment? State reasons in support of your opinion.


3. One of the people in the film refers to the fact that social media uses your own psychology against you. What does she mean by that?

Suggested Response:

Strong responses will refer to the fact that we are social beings and love to be engaged with others and that social media is a quick and easy way to do that. Very strong responses will refer to the Neural Common Currency Hypothesis and explain how that relates to the question.


4. Explain the meaning of the phrase, “If the service is free, then you are the product.”

Suggested Response:

The product that the social media giants sell to advertisers and influencers is information about you and your attention.


5. How are the feeds of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Instagram tailored to the user?

Suggested Response:

Algorithms designed to record our interests and preferences tell the social media companies which messages will interest us and these are the messages that are placed on the social media feeds.


6. The Neural Common Currency Hypothesis claims that the positive inputs from experiences in reality like when we make money or eat good food cause the same chemicals to be released in the brain as when we receive a “like” or connect with someone on social media. Why does this theory make a lot of sense from the standpoint of the evolution of the human species?

Suggested Response:

Human beings have no claws, no sharp teeth to bite with, no armor to protect us from other animals and no fur to protect us from the cold. As a result, we need to cooperate with our fellow human beings in families, tribes, cities, states, and nations in order to thrive. Thus, the pleasure in social contact and connection is as vitally important as making money or eating.


7. Jaron Lanier, the man how invented Facebook’s “Like” button, stated that the financial purpose of social media is to “manipulate and influence us by tiny, lucrative degrees.” That’s why the tailored feeds of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and the like are so effective at radicalizing users and fomenting division. How is this accomplished?

Suggested Response:

Strong responses will refer to the Neural Common Currency Hypothesis.


8. Some people say that the singularity has already arrived that we are already living in a time controlled by computers. Do you agree or disagree? Justify your conclusions.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response.


9. This film complains about manipulation by the social media giants. However, it too manipulates its audience. Cite some instances.

Suggested Response:

The entire fictional section, including the conflicts among the family members, the staged riots, the personification of the algorithm. Also, the selection of the commentators. You notice that there is no one defending the social media giants.

Follow up question: Even though some scenes are fictional, do they ring true? Do they appear to be true to life and therefore meaningful?


10. Do you think that you could go for a week without your cell phone?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response, but this is a great idea for a class project.


11. How important is your right to privacy?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. Teachers should guide the discussion to the relationship between privacy and autonomy. If we have no privacy our autonomy is limited. Another important concept is that the right to privacy is not absolute and must be weighed against other social interests. For example: (1) Does the right to privacy of a family or of parents include the right to stop investigations of child neglect or abuse? (2) Is a student’s right of privacy in his or her backpack or locker? What about the situations when students bring drugs, alcohol or guns to school? Is that student’s right to privacy worth you being exposed to a school in which those items are present? (3) What about the Pandemic? Should all our movements be tracked through an app on our cell phones so that wherever we have gone and whomever we have come in to contact with is stored on a government computer so that our contacts can be tracked if we come down with or are exposed to the Coronavirus?


12. What are the sources of division and polarization in American society other than social media?

Suggested Response:

There is no one answer. Good discussions will include a discussion of radio and TV talk shows and newscasts that encourage people to take extreme views; disinformation spread by foreign countries for the purpose of weakening the U.S., politicians seeking to sow division for their own political ends.


13. If you live in a country that is evenly divided and you are firmly on one side of that divide, and if you believe that the policies put forward by the other side are dangerous for the country and just plain unintelligent, why would you compromise with the other side?

Suggested Response:

Because (1) no one can be completely sure that their policies are the best in the long run and (2) the only alternative to compromise is disunion and civil war.


14. This is from the script for the movie:

[Chamath] We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals– hearts, likes, thumbs-up– and we conflate that with value, and we conflate it with truth. And instead, what it really is is fake, brittle popularity… that’s short-term and that leaves you even more, and admit it, vacant and empty before you did it. Because then it forces you into this vicious cycle where you’re like, “What’s the next thing I need to do now? ‘Cause I need it back.”

Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Defend your position.


15. Give some examples of social interactions and their level of importance to you?

Suggested response:

There is no one set of correct responses. TWM would rate family, relatives, teachers, and friends ahead of social media. Other examples to discuss can include, news reports on the media, strangers, authority figures etc.

16. Is social media a drug? Justify you’re answer.

Suggested Response:  Strong responses will refer to the drug-like nature of social media in the dopamine hits it gives its users and the fact that it leaves users wanting more and more.


17. What do the people interviewed in the film mean when they say, “If you are not paying for the product then you are the product.”

Suggested Response:  The product is information about you and your attention. Facebook, Twitter, etc. then sell this information to advertisers or influencers.

18. What does Cable News Network (CNN) have in common with social media?

Suggested Response:  CNN is constantly updating with “Breaking News.”  This builds curiosity and FOMO.  We get an adrenaline hit when ourcuriosity is satisfied but often, especially when we watch a lot, the experience leaves us unsatisfaied.


Many of the discussion questions are excellent essay prompts.


1. As a class, go through some or all of the steps in Take Control from the Center for Humane Technology.


2. Have a competition to see which members of the class can go for a week without their cell phones.  To make this work, you will have to get parental permission and support for the project.


3. A person can give up their autonomy in a number of ways. For example, a person can act only in ways approved by his or her classmates. Write an essay about a situation in which a person gave up their autonomy or in which they resisted pressure and retained their autonomy.

4. Research the latest statistics on teenage depression, anxiety, and suicide and the latest theories about the reason they are increasing. Obtain materials from at least four reputable sources, peer-reviewed journals, or mainstream press.

5. Write an essay on the use of subliminal clues in social media for good and for ill and the implications of the use of subliminal clues on our right to autonomy.


Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.



See Links to the Internet Section.

This Learning Guide was written by James A. Frieden. It was published on December 31, 2020

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How is hugging a friend or eating a delicious grape the same as clicking on a link or receiving a “like” for a web post? Click here to find out.


For a movie worksheet for this film, see Film Study Worksheet for a Documentary.

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