Social Media Addiction: Is It Time To Crackdown On Cyber Dependency?

We scroll, we watch, we scroll, we read, we swipe left, we pass, we swipe right, we like. Then we do it all over again. And again, and again. We are all – sparing a principled few – social media addicts. But are we sufferers of addiction? At least one American politician believes so. Senator Josh Hawley’s ‘SMART’ Act looks to reign in digital dependency with tough new restrictions. It’s likely destined for the legislative scrapheap, but the bill has got people talking – and tweeting – about the perils of not-so-social media. 

The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act hopes to hit the Internet where it hurts. YouTube’s autoplay feature would be scrapped, as would the infinite scrolling of Twitter and Facebook feeds. Swiping would be restricted to three-minute sessions, with default daily limits set at half-an-hour. The measures are stringent, says Hawley, but necessary to protect against Big Tech’s exploitation of “human psychology [and] brain physiology”.    

The Missouri man has launched half a dozen bills since taking his Senate seat in January, each with an anti-tech edge. SMART is probably the most contentious, and – to the dismay of concerned parents – has little hope of being enacted. Skopos Labs, a bill success predictor, gives it a measly 3% chance of victory. But it’s sparking debate nonetheless – and isn’t without some measure of academic merit. 

Social media usage is skyrocketing, particularly among young people. A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center revealed a full 89% of teens are online at least “several times a day”, with just less than half admitting “almost constant” swiping. Strikingly, the numbers represent a two-fold increase since 2014.  

Purveyors of tech would say this is a good thing – evidence of their products’ popularity and mass appeal. But what Silicon Valley deems a coup in connecting and entertaining their customers, is, according to Mr Hawley, a ‘parasitic’ colonisation of attention. Big Tech would dispute this, with one industry group – the Internet Association – mauling the bill’s failure to recognise investment “in programs, partnerships, policies, controls, and resources to promote healthy online experiences”. 

Flashy as they are, these provisions can’t compete with old-fashioned moderation, some experts believe. A team at the University of Pennsylvania found that, when limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day, undergraduates enjoyed “significant improvements in well-being”. Anxiety, depression, loneliness, and the notorious fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) all receded markedly, noted research leader Melissa Hunt.    

The effects were particularly pronounced among more depressed students, reflecting, perhaps, the notion that vulnerable minds seek validation online. This sort of digital dependency is often equated to drug use, where addicts grow physiologically reliant on a substance. But talk of full-blown online addiction is overdone, analysts contend.

“Letting your child use social media is like giving them cocaine, alcohol and cigarettes – all at once, or so we’re told,” says Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Reports that compare social media to drug use are ignoring evidence of positive effects, while exaggerating and generalising the evidence of negative effects. This is scaremongering – and it does not promote healthy social media use”.    

Individual liberty could also be at risk in a cyber-crackdown, critics warn. Certain social media features “substantially impede freedom of choice,” reads the SMART Act – but restricting them would, in effect, diminish a user’s autonomy. “This is pure anti-freedom, anti-innovation,” says Shoshana Weissmann of the R Street Institute, a public policy think tank. “Yes, social media is taking over many people’s lives, and that’s bad. But it’s not the federal government’s job to fix”.

Above all else, law-making on social media’s addictiveness feels premature. It is a worthy talking point – and supreme debate fodder – but the lack of consistent, corroborated academic evidence restricts its legislative legitimacy. Key groups, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), have yet to designate it an illness, whereas similar phenomenon – like excessive video gaming – are deemed bona fide disorders.

The industry is braced for a fight, however, and already their lobbyists are picking apart the proposals. They’re wise to be rolling up their sleeves – the biggest battles are yet to come. The winds in Washington are blowing towards a Big Tech break-up, with regulation dominating the Democrat’s presidential race. Even Donald Trump is said to be considering an executive order against social-media political bias. 

After decades of free rein, the state is clamping down on Silicon Valley. It promises to be an almighty showdown – one that could reshape swiping habits for good.