A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 4, 2019

Could Banning Addictive Features of Social Media Ever Possibly Work?

Well, first you have to provide proof social media is addictive, and the science on that is currently evidence-free. Then you have to demonstrate that there are legislative solutions to making people stop using social media. And the data on that, from authoritarian regimes around the world, is not exactly encouraging.

So the most likely answer is, no. JL

Emily Stewart reports in Vox:

The legislation wouldn’t kill off social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube entirely, but it would ban infinite scroll and autoplay, and it would limit a user’s time on a platform to 30 minutes a day. A user could remove the time limit, but it would reset every month. It’s unlikely to ever become law. And some experts warn it’s putting the cart before the horse; This legislation is proposing a sweeping solution before the problem has actually been defined.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) is at it again in his war on Big Tech. His latest target: The fundamental underpinnings of how social media works.
The Missouri Republican unveiled the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act — or the SMART Act — a bill aimed at curbing what Hawley calls “social media addiction.” The legislation wouldn’t kill off social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube entirely, but it would force them to change the core ways their products function. Among other things, it would ban infinite scroll and autoplay on their apps and websites, and it would automatically limit a user’s time on a platform to 30 minutes a day. A user could change or remove the time limit, but it would reset every month.
In other words, in Hawley’s world, you would have to tell Twitter every 30 days that you want to spend more than a half hour on its service every day.
Hawley, the youngest member of the Senate at age 39, has staked out a position for himself as an anti-tech crusader in Congress. He has introduced multiple bills on issues such as data tracking, children’s online privacy, and data monetization. He’s also pushed tech executives in hearings and pushed federal regulators to take more action on tech.
And he’s made no secret of his disdain for social media companies. In a USA Today op-ed in May, Hawley wrote that the country might be better off if Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter just went away entirely. “Maybe social media is best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society,” he wrote.
It’s part of his broader posturing as a post-Trump populist who sees himself as a defender of the middle of the country against the so-called elite. (It’s worth noting he went to Stanford and Yale.) Some of his proposals have earned bipartisan support. Others — namely a widely criticized social media bias bill and now this social media addiction bill — have not.
Hawley’s bill raises important questions about how tech impacts our lives and how it should be regulated. However, it takes a rather ham-handed approach, and it’s unlikely to ever become law. And some experts warn it’s putting the cart before the horse; we still have a lot to learn about social media addiction, including how prevalent it is, what causes it, and if it’s even a real thing. This legislation is proposing a sweeping solution before the problem has actually been defined.

Josh Hawley’s SMART Act, briefly explained

The SMART Act does not yet have any co-sponsors in the Senate, meaning Hawley is out on a limb with this bill. It takes aim at the attention economy and the ways these platforms compete for our time. Tech companies often say they’re trying to address the issue themselves. Apple, for example, has launched apps that help you monitor screen time, and Facebook and Instagram also have introduced tools to help people keep track of how much time they are spending on the services. Of course, monitoring your time on the app requires you to, you know, be on the app. Tech executives have talked about the concept of “time well spent,” but overall, the push hasn’t been terribly effective.
Among Hawley’s primary proposals in this latest bill are:
  • Banning infinite scroll, auto refill, and badges and awards users get for engagement, except for in certain circumstances — such as music streaming or badges that “substantially increase” access to new services or functions, like giving a person access to a premium version of a product.
  • Requiring social media platforms to include “natural stopping points” for users, which would basically end scrolling after a certain amount of content.
  • Requiring platforms to make it a neutral process for users to accept or deny consent terms — meaning accept and decline boxes would have to look the same.
  • Requiring social media companies to make it easier for users to track the amount of time they spend on their platforms.
  • Automatically limiting the time users can spend on a platform across all devices to 30 minutes a day. Users would be able change the limits, but they would have to do so every month.
Hawley’s legislation would put the Federal Trade Commission in charge of enforcement and would also solicit a report from the FTC on social media addiction every three years. It would allow the FTC and the Department of Health and Human Services to write rules on other practices “that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially interfere with consumers’ freedom of choice.”
“Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction,” Hawley said in a statement announcing the bill on Tuesday. “Too much of the ‘innovation’ in this space is designed not to create better products, but to capture more attention by using psychological tricks that make it difficult to look away.”
In a statement distributed by Hawley’s office, Josh Golin, the executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, applauded the bill because he said it “would prohibit some of the most exploitative tactics” used by social media companies, including those directed at children and teens.
The industry trade group the Internet Association criticized the bill for not backing up its claims about social media. “Internet companies invest in programs, partnerships, policies, controls, and resources to promote healthy online experiences, and there are a wealth of existing tools that allow users to make choices about how they engage online,” president and CEO Michael Beckerman said in a statement. “Policy proposals must be evidence-based.”

The evidence on social media addiction is inconclusive so far

While the idea of social media addiction certainly feels like a real problem — how many times in the last hour have you checked your phone? — there’s actually a lot we don’t know about it, Dar Meshi, who researches social media use and decision making at the University of Michigan, told Recode. Excessive social media use has not been recognized as a disorder by the World Health Organization or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
“The prevalence of social media addiction is still under huge debate in the academic community,” Meshi said. “When there’s such a disconnect in the actual community, I think more research needs to be done over time to understand what it is that we’re actually dealing with.”
Meshi noted that he’s observed this in his own research. He has found evidence that there are some similarities between people with substance abuse disorders and people who excessively use social media, but he also has soon-to-be-published research demonstrating that some of those parallels, specifically those related to decision making, appear to be more tenuous.
Studies have shown how tech companies use design techniques employed by casinos to make their platforms stickier and a tactic called “persuasive design” to affect how users think and act, starting at a very young age. The Pew Research Center last year found that nearly 90 percent of teens are online almost constantly or multiple times a day. And Tristan Harris, a former Google employee who cofounded the Center for Human Technology, now spends much of his time discussing the dangers of tech and how it affects the way we think, feel, and interact.
But there is also evidence that tech addiction concerns are overblown.
Andrew Przybylski, a University of Oxford psychologist and public skeptic of social media addiction, told Recode in an email that Hawley’s bill is a “silly and practically unworkable idea” and said it might distract from more effective regulation.
“It’s important that social media companies begin participating in large-scale transparent studies with independent scientists,” he said. “Until Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have to share their data, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
Another proposed law in Congress, the CAMRA Act, sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), is trying to promote a data-driven approach to investigating the idea of social media addiction. The legislation would authorize the National Institutes of Health to head a research program on the effects of technology and the media on children. The legislation has five cosponsors, including three Republicans. Hawley’s office has not yet signed onto the bill and said they are reviewing the legislation.
“We’re just at the very infancy of studying [social media addiction], and actually, there’s no funding agency that funds research on it,” Meshi said. “In the United States, there’s a huge lack of funding into this type of research.”
Vox’s Brian Resnick recently made a similar point on the issue of smartphones:
The studies we have so far on the relationship between digital technology use and mental health — for both teens and adults — are more than inconclusive. “The literature is a wreck,” said Anthony Wagner, chair of the psychology department at Stanford University. “Is there anything that tells us there’s a causal link? That our media use behavior is actually altering our cognition and underlying neurological function or neurobiological processes? The answer is we have no idea. There’s no data.”
Hawley’s legislation may taking an aggressive and unrealistic approach to the issue. But it is yet another signal that the Overton window (the scope of ideas on a topic considered acceptable in the public discourse) on technology and how it’s changing the way we live might be shifting.
Automatically limiting time on a social media platform to 30 minutes for every American might seem like an overreach now, but perhaps it won’t be in the future.


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