The Social Dilemma: A Lesson on Social Media (Advanced)

ESL Level: Advanced (Upper-intermediate here)
Lesson Topic: The health and societal risks of social media use
Skill Focus
: Speaking, Reading, Vocabulary
Lesson Plan Download: social-media-dilemma-upper-advanced-01103020.docx
Approximate Class Time: 3.5 hours


  • Teachers, this lesson is longer and denser than usual. Pick the activities that you feel will work for your class. This lesson summarizes the key ideas of The Social Dilemma (Netflix, 2020). If possible, watching the documentary itself would be a great pre- or post-activity.
  • Students, feel free to read the lesson, do the vocabulary exercises, and leave your answers to the questions in the comment area below.

a lesson on social media

ADVANCED Social Media ESL Lesson Plan: Warm-up (Pair Work)

  1. Which websites do you use the most? What do you like most about them?
  2. What social networking platforms do you use? Why do you use them?
  3. Do you make an effort to limit your screen time? Why or why not?
  4. What social movements do you know that have been popularized by social media?

Reading: The Social Dilemma Documentary

The Social Dilemma is a video documentary that argues that social media companies are causing significant damage to society. The video is mostly presented by insiders in the tech industry (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) who confess to the insidious nature of the technology they helped design.

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.”

The film begins by rebutting the claim that social media is free. By using the system, the user and his attention become the product that advertisers aim to control. Although we fear these companies sell our data, social media companies hoard it to in order to monetize us. The data collected is not merely demographic—every engagement is measured by algorithms with precision to better understand our behaviour. The end goal is an unconscious manipulation, which is described as a “gradual, slight, imperceptible change in [our] own behaviour and perception.” Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff believes this surveillance capitalism has made tech companies “the richest … in the history of humanity.”

The Mental Health Dilemma

Justin Rosenstein, creator of the Facebook Like button, believed his feature would spread positivity. Such features provide us with a dosage of social approval, which we tend to conflate with acceptance and truth. Sadly, the result is a “fake brittle popularity” that leaves us vacant and depressed without it.

A study of 100,000 teenage girls in the U.S. found that hospital admissions for self-harm have increased by 62% in older teens and 189% in pre-teens (nearly triple). The same patterns exist for teen suicide. These changes began around 2010/2011, which coincides with social media becoming available on smartphones.

The Democracy Dilemma

“If you want to control the population of your country, there has never been a tool as effective as Facebook.”

Social media is perhaps too efficient at reaching the most fertile audience for ads and campaigns. This allows bad actors such as political and hate groups to easily gain popularity and influence. Studies from MIT (2018) show that fake news spreads six times faster than true news. This leads to a polarization of society as newsfeeds entrench us deeper and deeper in our own views. As a society, we lose touch with the shared facts and reality that bond us.

The documentary uses the Flat Earth movement to exemplify how regular people can be influenced to adopt incredibly idiotic beliefs. The movement was popularized by a Youtube algorithm that recommended the video to hundreds of millions of people.

What do the film’s experts believe the future holds for society? Their earnest answers include civil war and the end of civilization due to our own willful ignorance.

Social Media Lesson Plan: Comprehension Questions

  1. True or False: The article claims that social media companies are selling our data.
  2. What does Zuboff’s term ‘surveillance capitalism’ likely mean?
  3. What can we infer about the author’s view on the cause of teenage health problems?
  4. Describe the “democracy dilemma” presented in the article in your own words.
  5. Does the author imply that Flat Earthers are in fact stupid?
  6. Which claims in the article do you agree with? Which do you disagree with?
  7. Do you agree with the article’s thoughts on the future of society?
Possible Answers

1- False. He claims that companies are keeping the data for their own use.

3- By stating the correlation between the health problems and availability of social media on mobile phones, we can infer that the author believes social media has a causal role in creating these problems.

5-No. He suggests that they are regular people, but they have been manipulated by recommended content.

Vocabulary: Match the words from the article with their meaning.

1.     insidious (adj)
2.     rebut (v)
3.     hoard (v)
4.     imperceptible (adj)
5.     dosage (n)
6.     conflate (v)
7.     brittle (adj)
8.     vacant (j)
9.     coincide (v)
10.  fertile (adj)
11.  polarization (n)
12.  entrench (v)

1- proceeding in a…
2- prove that something…
3- amass and hide away…
4- impossible to see…
5- the size or frequency…
6- combine two or more…
7- describing something hard…
8- empty
9- happen simultaneously
10- capable of producing…
11- division into…
12- establish so firmly…

Vocabulary Homework: Circle the words that were new to you. Add them to your vocabulary notebook and make sentences for homework.

Social Media Lesson Plan: Society for a Better Tomorrow (Group Work)

Background: You and your partners are scheduled to give a short presentation (5-8 minutes) on how to better manage social media use. In the audience will be members of government, concerned parents, and teenagers.

Task: Brainstorm ideas about how to address the issues presented by social media. Be sure to consider the three groups in your audience. When finished, organize your ideas and then present them to the class.

Social Media Lesson Plan: Debate

Student A: You believe that overall social media is beneficial for society. Spend a few minutes thinking of ideas to support your position. When finished, start the debate.

Student B: You believe that overall social media is harmful for society. Spend a few minutes thinking of ideas to support your position. Your partner will start the debate when ready.

Social Media Lesson Plan: “The Gift” Role-Play

Background: Student A is the teenage child of Student B. Pick a role and then read only your own role.

Student A: You are a teenager. You depend on social media for several important functions in your life. Your parent has asked to speak with you because s/he wants to give you a gift.

Student B: You worry that your teenager is addicted to technology. You have recently bought a gift that you will believe will greatly benefit his/her life: The Cell-Phone Jail. This product is a small cell in which you can lock a phone for a set amount of time. Present your gift to your teen and try to establish rules for the imprisonment of his/her phone.

Social Media Lesson Plan: The Social Dilemma Recommendations

Discuss these recommendations presented by tech experts at the end of the documentary. Are they similar to your recommendations from your presentation? Which could you adopt?

  • Recognizing the current problems and discussing them openly
  • Uninstalling apps that waste time
  • Turning off notifications
  • Using a search engine that doesn’t store search history instead of Google
  • Putting more regulations on tech companies and taxing data assets to discourage companies from mining personal data
  • Fact-checking the sources of an article before you share it
  • Making an effort to read news from different points of view
  • Not allowing children to use social media until 16 years of age
  • Working out a time-budget with children about how many hours they can spend online

Social Media Lesson Plan: Social Media Confessions Bingo

(Instructions and card taken from

One Way to Play

  • Circle your confessions, leaving the center blank
  • Show your card to the group, and select one experience to share with the group
  • As a group, discuss how you might reduce the negative effects of social media
  • The winner is the person who makes a positive change in their life

Social media bingo 

Social Media ESL Lesson Plan: Bonus Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss this quotation: “Only drug dealers and software companies call their customers ‘users’” – Edward Tufte
  2. Is unconscious manipulation of the consumer any different from regular marketing and advertising?
  3. Does your country have a problem with ‘fake news’? Have you experienced fake news yourself?
  4. Do you feel the society you live in has become more and more polarized?

To take action to solve the social dilemma, watch the film and then visit

Social Media Lesson plan created Matthew Barton of

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