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Why Banning Infinite Scrolling Would Fail to Solve Our Overuse of Social Media

Culture

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“Overuse is much less sinister. It places much more responsibility on the user to do something on the problem.” – Nir Eyal

Earlier this week, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) unveiled the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act targeted to combat the idea that “the biggest tech companies have embraced a business model of addiction,” and I wholeheartedly believe it fails to get to the heart of the matter, nor does it offer sensible ideas for how social media needs to be regulated.

Here’s a quick high-level overview of the key proposals in this latest bill (including, you guessed it, the banning of infinite scrolling):

  • Infinite scroll, auto refill, and in-app badges or awards, “if such award does not substantially increase access to new or additional services, content, or functionality” would be banned
  • A native time limit, enforced by the platform and set automatically: 30 minutes. Users could potentially increase the time limit, but it would reset to half an hour at the start of each month
  • A neutral process for users to either accept or deny consent terms — meaning accept and decline boxes would have to be designed to look the same
  • A process for users to more easily track the amount of time they’re spending on their platforms

While the bill wouldn’t kill off social media platforms altogether, it presents an outline for a process through which they’d be forced to change the core ways their products function, one I’d argue represents the wrong approach to how social media platforms should be regulated and the importance of individual responsibility.

The dangers of labeling our overuse of social media an addiction

Regarding individual responsibility, I find it problematic to call our overuse of social media an addiction and would claim that it is even dangerous to use these terms to the frequency they are used today.

In seeking out a more appropriate term to use, I spoke with former Stanford lecturer, and behavioral design expert, and author, Nir Eyal, whose books Hooked and Indistractable looks at how we can get the best from technology without letting it get the best of us, in an age of ever-increasing demands on our attention.

“Addiction is a pathology and when we use the word to describe everything two bad things happen: one, we disrespect and diminish the importance of thinking of addiction as a pathology, and the second bad thing that happens is that the rest of us, everyone who is not addicted, learns that this is something that is powerless to resist. Overuse is much less sinister. It places much more responsibility on the user to do something on the problem versus just blaming pusher/dealer aka the ‘big tech companies,’” he said.

Rather than continuing to operate on the passive assumption and knowledge that the geniuses behind the curtain of Silicon Valley are hijacking our brains and we are simply unable to do anything about it, we need to begin by correcting calling the issue by what it is: overuse.

As far as the regulation itself, I feel it is attempting to address the problem from the wrong perspective for this reason.

Addressing the right problem from the wrong perspective

This bill unduly discriminates against one form of media, while not getting specific enough about each case where you see this problem occurring.

“When we make these generalizations that the techniques are somehow mind-controlling and addicting people, we don’t get specific about exactly what we’re talking about. Are we talking about infinite scroll? Are we talking about streaks on Duolingo? It’s not about the technique, it’s to what ends it is used,” said Eyal.

The bill stipulates that within three months of its passing, social media companies would be required to halt content auto-loading and displaying content without conscious opting in by the user. This would apply to the content itself, in addition to the delivery mechanism. In lieu would be a process for opting in on additional posts by clicking a “Load More” or “See More” option. It wants to mandate that Netflix and YouTube stop using autoplay, but not news outlets like FOX or CNN.

“Why are we discriminating against one form of media, which is a conversation that people are having online with each other via a platform, as opposed to a unidirectional channel like Fox News or CNN that plays all day long?” asked Eyal. The truth is, people can get just as unhealthily addicted to those forms of media as well.

How social media platforms should be regulated: the use and abuse approach

If the SMART Act is not broad enough in its tactics to address the problem, then the question that rises to the surface becomes, what should lawmakers be discussing to effectively safeguard people from the dangers of social media? Eyal has thought about this question for years and personally advocates for a use and abuse policy.

“One of the silver linings of tech companies collecting so much data about us is that they know how much we use these products on an individual level. What I’ve been advocating for is for these companies to have a policy around how many hours per week..whatever this number is..and should publicize this in their terms and services…they’re going to reach out and say ‘you have used this product to a degree that may indicate you are struggling with an addiction. Can we help?’ Mathematically speaking, this figure should lie somewhere within the top 1% of users.

Following conversations with representatives from Reddit, Facebook, and Snapchat, on the subject, Eyal has learned that these people live up to a hundred miles or more of miles from communities. In this case, their ‘overuse’ is simply them utilizing a tool to meet people they otherwise couldn’t. Would this classify as an addiction? Of course not.

So as we think about the individual responsibility we have as users of social media, and the influence lawmakers should have, let’s choose to focus efforts on helping those who truly need it versus propagating a false narrative that we are somehow all addicted.

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