Should the most compulsive and habit-forming features on websites and social media platforms be curbed?
The average American now spends 10 and a half hours daily, or well more than half their day, staring at a screen. This has been sharply increasing in recent years, and with technology like televisions having previously existed for decades, the main culprits are likely websites, smartphones, and social media which are programmed using psychological principles developed to keep gamblers gambling.
“Growing evidence indicates that social media and gambling exploit the same psychological mechanisms to keep us coming back,” writes Laurie Clark for Tech World. “It turns out what drives us to refresh our feeds and to pull the lever of a slot machine are surprisingly similar.”
Certain daily tech behaviors are now at record levels. For example, 74% of Facebook users, 63% of Instagram users, and 61% of Snapchat users visit their respective platform every single day.
What the bill does
The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act would institute several reforms under law that websites and social media would be required to implement, including:
- An option for users to track how much time they spend on the website or tech service. Apple already does this, for example.
- No more infinitely scrolling feeds, in which the next page of content automatically appears once a user reaches the bottom of a page. Reddit has infinite scroll, for example.
- No more auto-playing videos, in which a media or other piece of content automatically starts when reached on the social media feed, rather than a user having to manually click ‘play.’ Facebook is the most famous practitioner of auto-playing videos inside a feed. YouTube’s videos, by contrast, don’t play until you click on them.
- Setting a time limit of 30 minutes per day on any social media platform or website, across all devices. A user could manually change or eliminate that limit, but they would be required to do so again once per month.
It was introduced in the Senate on July 30 as bill number S. 2314, by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the problem of technology addiction has reached the point that the most excessive features of technology now need to be reined in.
“Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction. 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,” Sen. Hawley said in a press release. “This legislation will put an end to that and encourage true innovation by tech companies.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the bill would limit tech business’ decisions and features which have worked great in attracting users, and that there is insufficient evidence that tech and social media “addiction” is really a societal ill.
“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,” said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, a trade group including members Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Snapchat. “Policy proposals must be evidence-based.”
Odds of passage
The bill has not yet attracted any Senate cosponsors, although it’s also only been out for a few weeks. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
The legislation would definitely face an uphill climb given the lobbying influence of Big Tech, plus the widespread usage of the most popular tech features among the masses across the political spectrum.