Waging war against social media addiction

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 20th of August, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: waging war against social media addiction. 

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley this month introduced a bill that would crack down on certain social media features. The goal is to curb what the Republican calls Americans’ addiction to social media.

REICHARD: WORLD correspondent Katie Gaultney joins us now to talk about it.

Katie, let’s start with what led Senator Hawley to introduce this bill: Are Americans addicted to social media? 

KATIE GAULTNEY: … Sorry, what Mary? I was just checking my Twitter feed. 


The overwhelming trend seems to be that yes, people are spending more and more time on devices. And a good chunk of that is on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and so on. Nielsen recently released a study saying so far this year, American adults are spending more than 11 hours per day interacting with media technology in some form. And roughly three hours of that is through phone- or tablet-based apps. 

REICHARD: I believe it. But specifically how does the junior senator from my state of Missouri propose that we stem that tide of social media addiction?

GAULTNEY: Senator Hawley has introduced what he’s calling the SMART Act, which stands for Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology. Hawley’s taking aim at certain features that tend to lead to mindless lingering on these platforms. “Infinite scroll” is one, where you can scroll through Facebook or Instagram and new content loads automatically, so you can spend forever just looking through photos and updates on your feed. Autoplay is another feature Hawley wants to end, where videos and music play automatically. 

He also wants to put a stop to any features that would incentivize people to spend extended time on social media. Snapchat, for example, rewards users for exchanging a photo or video with each other three days in a row. It’s called a snapstreak. That stuff leads to increased time and engagement on the app. 

REICHARD: So, it might take a few more clicks, but couldn’t people still while the day away on these apps?

GAULTNEY: Yeah, they could. The last part of the SMART Act would require these tech companies to impose time limits for usage. So, for example, Facebook would only let you spend 30 minutes a day on the app by default. Under the SMART Act, users could increase or remove those limits, but they would still reset to 30 minutes a day on the first day of the month. And the bill calls for “conspicuous pop-ups” to show how much time users are spending on these apps.

REICHARD: I could make a guess, Katie—after all, we tell kids TV and the like will rot their brains, so why not adults?—but what justification has Senator Hawley given for wanting to crack down on those so-called “addictive” social media features?

GAULTNEY: Hawley is fed up with how he says tech companies have lured us in, gotten us hooked to their platforms, and then sold our attention to the highest bidder. Advertisers pay big bucks for spots on social media. Hawley writes in his bill—I’m quoting here—“By exploiting psychological and physiological vulnerabilities, these design choices interfere with the free choice of users.”

So Hawley is pointing the finger at these key features as one reason Americans’ mental health is taking a hit. He cites stories and statistics of how users—especially teens—suffer from an addiction to social media. The surge in teen suicide rates is just one example. 

REICHARD: Hmm. You know, I think about how much richer person-to-person interaction is when there’s not a screen in the way. And we know loneliness and depression are on the rise. Surely there’s a link to how impersonal our society has become, as people lose those social skills because they’re interacting through technology. Agree or no? 

GAULTNEY: I do, for sure. I think we can all agree that interacting with each other in real life is more fulfilling and healthier than doing so mindlessly through a screen. 

REICHARD: Katie, how likely is this bill to pass? 

GAULTNEY: Tech experts seem to think it’s not likely to pass in its current form. For one thing, it’s a little vague about what, exactly, constitutes social media. Second, it’s pretty drastic. For all its pitfalls, social media has become a useful tool for distributing important news, community updates, constructive things. Many small businesses rely on social media. It’s not all bad. But on the other hand, this could be an early volley in a revolt against social media manipulation. Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts recently proposed a bill authorizing the National Institutes of Health to formally research the effects of technology and media on children, with a specific focus on social media addiction. So there may be bipartisan support for confronting the issue in some form. 

REICHARD: Well, putting the device down and experiencing the real world is much more well, real and satisfying.  Katie Gaultney, thanks for bringing us this report. 

GAULTNEY: [laughs] Thank you, Mary.

(AP Photo/Jenny Kane) In this Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, photo an iPhone displays the apps for Facebook and Messenger in New Orleans. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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