Should social media be regulated?  

Last month, the youngest US Senator, Josh Hawley, a freshman Republican from Missouri, filed a bill called the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act. The purpose of the act is to do something about the harmful effects of addiction to social media.

What would the bill do? I haven't read it, but according to media reports it would change the ways companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google deal with their customers. The open secret of social media is that they are designed quite consciously and intentionally to be habit-forming.

So-called "free" media make their money by selling advertising, and advertising is worthless unless someone looks at it. So their bottom line depends on how firmly and how long they glue your eyeballs to their sites. And they have scads of specialists—psychologists, media experts, and software engineers—whose full-time job is to squeeze an extra minute or two of attention from you every day, regardless of whatever else is going on in your life.

Writing on the website of the religion and public life journal First Things, Jon Schweppe says the SMART Act may not be the one-stop cure-all for our social media problems, but it's a step in the right direction. It would prohibit certain practices that are currently commonplace, apparently including one that has always reminded me of what life might be like in Hell: the infinite webpage.

It used to be that when people first figured out how to make a web page scroll, it was only so long. You could always get to the bottom of it, where you might find useful things like who wrote it or other masthead-and-boilerplate information. Well, that doesn't always happen anymore. The infinite webpage pits the pitiful finite mortal human against the practically unlimited resources of the machine to come up with more eye candy, as much as you want. You keep scrolling, it will keep showing you new stuff.

This particular feature reminds me of a passage from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe featuring the candy called Turkish Delight. The wicked-witch Queen of Narnia offered the boy Edmund his favourite type of candy to convince him to betray his friends. The candy she offered him was enchanted so that whoever ate it always wanted more, and "would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves." No matter how much time you waste on an infinite website, there's always more.

The SMART bill would also give users a realistic option to voluntarily limit their own use of social media with daily timers, prohibits "badge" systems (which is evidently a kind of special-privilege feature that gets rewards heavy users and encourages them even more), and would prohibit or modify other addictive features.

The Federalist's John Thomas sees the SMART bill as the first step in what may be a turning point in the history of social media. He likens it to the Parisian reaction to brightly-coloured advertising posters enabled by the then-new lithography process in the 1860s. Pretty soon, a good percentage of all available vertical flat surfaces were covered with posters, and the town fathers decided to regulate how and where posters could be displayed.

This may be the point at which the US citizenry stops merely wringing its hands and saying there's nothing you can do in the face of rising teen depression and other ill effects of social media and starts to take action. As Thomas points out, though, there are few grass-roots organizations taking up the control-social-media banner.

This may be because the dangers social media pose for mental health are insidious and gradual rather than abrupt and catastrophic. Suppose that every person had an intrinsic social-media limit: say after viewing X hours of social media (and X would be different for each person), your brain would literally explode and you'd die. Well, you can bet that after two or three of these incidents, governments would come down on Facebook, Google, and company like a ton of bricks with all sorts of restrictions, up to and including an outright ban.

But nobody's brain literally explodes from doing too much Facebook. The negative consequences of social-media use are much less obvious than that but are nonetheless real. Even the most tragic cases of teen suicides that result from peer persecution over social media can be blamed not just on the media, but on the cruelty of other teens. Nevertheless, the nominal anonymity and ease of use that social media offer can turn what might be fairly well-behaved peers in person into abominable monsters on Facebook.

Some writers oppose the SMART Act and similar legislation on the free-market principle that government is more likely to make things worse with legislation than otherwise. While that can happen, it is foolish to take the hyper-libertarian position that if a good or service is bad, people just shouldn't use it. Back when ordinary glass was used for automobile windshields, it would turn into long razor-sharp shards that decapitated numerous drivers, and Congress invited Henry Ford to testify about a proposed law that would require the use of the more expensive safety glass in windshields. Reportedly (and this is from memory), Ford said, "I'm in the business of making cars, I'm not in the business of saving lives."

When Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress not too long ago, he was self-controlled enough not to say anything that harsh. But if the day has at last arrived when our elected officials are finally going to do something about the harmful effects of social media, one of two things (or perhaps a combination) is going to happen. Either the social-media companies will have to get ahead of the proposed legislation and enact real, quantifiable reforms of their own and prove that they work, or they will have to change their ways in accordance with regulatory laws that they brought upon themselves.

My own hope is that the companies will figure out a transparent and effective way to self-regulate. But the choice is theirs, and if they brush off the SMART Act and think they have the raw power to squash such regulation, they may be in for a painful surprise.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.  


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