Do We Need Laws to Help Curb our Social Media Addiction?

A US Senator wants to fundamentally change how social media works.

Social Media
Why do we need laws to manage our social media addiction?.

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Just eight months into his first term, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley introduced some of the most sweeping and aggressive government-enforced business control since the U.S. government first pressed its boot on the neck of big tobacco.

If his Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act (SMART Act) becomes law, your social media experience will be littered with authoritarian pop-ups imploring you to maintain 30-minute time limits and instead of easy-to-use scrolls, your feeds will turn into click-controlled social media rations. In short, your social media experience will become so annoying and static that you may, in fact, start using it less. So, Hawley will win, but you, and, especially, social media, will lose.

You're Addicted, But...

I’m not arguing that social media isn’t addictive. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube posts are the digital equivalent of Lay's potato chips. There’s no way to consume just one. And Hawley’s right. Facebook’s newsfeed, Twitter’s endlessly scrolling Tweet feed, and YouTube's auto-load of the next topic-related video are all designed to keep your gaze focused squarely on the screen.

The bill accurately captures at least part of the social media experience. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media platforms are designed to capture as much user attention as possible. It’s also true that the platforms have developed over time to capture and hold more and more of this attention. Facebook’s Founding President Sean Parker, who left the company after a year, said in a 2017 interview that Facebook’s goal was figuring out how to "consume as much of your time and conscious attention” as possible. That mindset was directly responsible for the creation of the Facebook like, noted Parker, adding that it gives users “a little dopamine hit.” Dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters most closely associated with happiness or pleasure. And when you learn what triggers it, you usually repeat the action (think eating sweets or having sex).

Parker’s statements were pretty damning, except when you consider he left the company in 2005, four years before the introduction of the Facebook like.

The claim that these companies designed their platforms to “exploit brain physiology and human psychology” is a stretch. I think it’s more accurate to say they found the levers that triggered deeper engagement, including Likes, and leaned harder on those tools. Now we can like (react) in six different ways. 

I suppose Facebook could’ve hired neurologists to measure dopamine levels in Facebook user test subjects, but I don’t think that was ever necessary. We've willingly given them all the engagement data they need.

Senator Hawley, though, believes social media companies have removed the power of choice. He sees us as sheep who, once under the spell cast by Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube developers, lose the power of free will.

The SMART Act’s solution will break social media as we know it and do away with:

  • Infinite scrolling
  • Auto-play
  • Any design variation between opt-in and opt-out buttons
  • Badges

While never mentioning Snapchat specifically, the badge ban clearly targets Snapchat Streaks. Snapchat awards tiny flame emoji badges to users who have snap-chatted each other for three consecutive days. If they go further, Snapchat adds a number to the streak. I’m not much of a Snapchat user, but even I know how important these snap streaks are. Does that encourage Snapchat users to stay on and use Snapchat more often? Of course it does.

Removing infinite scroll will all but ruin my experience on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. Does Hawley expect me to go back to the home page every time I want to see the next YouTube video, next Facebook post, next TikTok clip, or next Tweet? Seriously, this law would ruin Live Tweeting of events like the Democratic Debates. To work well, Twitter and its tweets have to flow like water. Otherwise we might as well just snail mail each other witty, 280-character messages.

What Hawley fails to understand is that these services aren’t interested in manipulating their users for the sake of manipulating them. As free services, they rely on advertising revenue. Advertisers want eyeballs and those eyeballs are generated through engagement.

Even without government regulation, these platforms know that the days of driving revenue almost exclusively through mobile ads may be coming to an end. Facebook, in particular, hopes to transform into a commerce platform. But that transition could take years. In the meantime, it and other platforms will have no choice but to continue pushing engagement through whatever means necessary.

The SMART Act Is A Bad Idea

I’m not against social media use time limits, but do we need the Federal Government telling private companies how to design their software and demanding annoying, timed pop-ups? Sure, it looks like this might be an opt-out situation, but I worry most people won’t even know how to turn off the 30-minute reminder setting.

It’s not that the tech sector isn’t aware that we’ve all perhaps overdone it a bit with social media. Apple, Google and others are already providing us with tools to globally track our screen time. And platforms like Instagram are looking at the dopamine effect of likes and considering hiding them so people stop focusing on them as a form of validation.

I think we have a simple choice here. Either we start managing the screen time and social media usage for ourselves and our families and teaching them about the value of IRL engagement, or we leave it to Senator Hawley’s ham-handed SMART Act approach. We may be too lazy to take the first path, but I’m pretty sure we won’t like the alternative. Please “Like” if you agree.