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Would Senator Hawley’s New SMART Act Cure Our Digital Addiction?

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Infinite scroll, natively enforced time limits, and incentive programs could be on the chopping block – how would your company respond to such changes?

“It basically treats anything where people talk to each other on the internet as an evil time-suck.”

These were the words The Verge correspondent Adi Robertson used to describe one of the latest bills proposed in the Senate to curb growing concerns about social media addiction, the SMART Act. Crafted by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), it seeks to combat the idea that “the biggest tech companies have embraced a business model of addiction.”

And while The Verge’s Casey Newton is skeptical that the bill will pass in full as currently written, it’s worthwhile to consider the impact of even one of its parts being passed into law in some way. Here, we’ll explore some of the proposed parts of the bill—and pose questions that need to be addressed before a bill like this is considered for passage into law including whether banning infinite scroll would actually cure our addiction?

Infinite Scroll Could Meet Its End

Within three months of such a bill (or component of a bill) 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 (say goodbye to being startled by auto-playing video), but would also apply to the delivery mechanism. Put another way, infinite scroll would be no more.

In its place would be the system that presumably preceded it: opting in on additional posts by clicking a “Load More” or “See More” option. For my part, I wonder at what point something is considered auto-playing. It might seem silly, but if audio clips or videos can be classified as auto-playing…what about GIFs? Moreover, could users do a kind of “lifetime opt-in” for a site that they want to be able to scroll infinitely through, like Instagram?

30-Minute Warning

In many ways, this feels like the most cumbersome piece of the proposed legislation. In Hawley’s words, “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.” His solution? 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. There has also been conversations about a pop-up greeting those who increase their limit, to inform them of how long they’ve been on the site.

Ignoring for a moment that there are a number of third-party applications that are capable of providing this service (including ones to block access to sites altogether), there are a number of instances where I can see this being annoying at best, and actively detrimental at worst. For marketers who use these spaces as part of well crafted digital strategy, content creators who rely on these sites to do their work, journalists who cover these platforms to inform the public, and researchers who need continuous access to these sites to assess their effects and impact…life could get a lot harder. And from a logistical perspective, do third-party posting and monitoring platforms such as Buffer, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, or Hubspot also have to comply with these rules?

While there’s likely some truth to the idea that a number of these platforms have the potential to “manipulate users in a way that undermines their wellbeing,” a hard time limit such as this may not be the way to rectify that.

Banished Badges?

In addition to concerning itself with how long we’re on sites each day, Hawley is also concerned about how often we’re on these sites over time, which is why the bill also seeks to ban in-app badges or awards, “if such award does not substantially increase access to new or additional services, content, or functionality.” Snapstreaks, the continuous communication metric native to Snapchat, has been frequently cited as an example of this principle. Were this bill (or this section of the bill) to be enacted, these incentives for daily use would be no more.

This may not seem drastic, but this falls under what The Verge’s Newton calls “common growth and engagement features, some of which are arguably the lifeblood of the targeted products.” As an example, Untapped (a badging app that allows users to connect over beer recommendations) would cease to exist in its current form. But I wonder what considerations would be made for sites that use this technique in service of wellness – like Lose It!, which uses badging to incentivize wellness and weight loss; or Chase, whose app uses streaks to encourage users to check in with their spending habits.

Is it likely that a bill this drastic manages to get passed through the House and Senate, intact and with these and several other transformative measures unchallenged? Honestly, no. But if our engagement strategies depend on certain native features to succeed, it’s a worthy exercise to think about how our work could change if any of these bills popping up with increasing frequency, take hold. It’s been done before with GDPR, but are we ready for what could be next?

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