Josh Hawley campaign stop in Ozark

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley(R) visits with patrons at Bric’s Belgian Waffle and Pancake House in Ozark during a stop on Hawley’s campaign for U.S. Senate May 28.

If Missouri’s junior U.S. senator has his way, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter and the YouTube platform will have to make fundamental changes to the ways their websites and applications operate.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, introduced the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act. His bill would ban certain features used prominently on social media apps, namely infinite scrolling and autoplaying videos.

“Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction. 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. This legislation will put an end to that and encourage true innovation by tech companies,” Hawley said.

I remember getting a Facebook account in 2005. It was only available to college students. You could post one picture on your profile. One.

Gradually, Facebook went away from being for college kids and cast it’s net toward an “everyone” demographic. A Facebook friend request from my mom was a game changer.

In came the invention of the news feed, the smartphone app, and the scrolling. We used to scroll through text-only status updates from our friends. Now we scroll through photos, videos and advertisements. Marketers caught on pretty quickly that social media apps had plenty of eyeballs on them.

“They design platforms with a bottom-line goal in mind: Capture as much of our attention as possible and immediately sell that attention to advertisers,” Hawley said.

The senator’s bill would require app developers to add “stopping points” to keep us all from scrolling forever.

I recently attended a family reunion in a place with so-so LTE phone reception. I shudder to think what would happen if the gathering had been held in an off-the-grid location. What would I have pulled out of my pocket and mindlessly looked at during awkward lulls in conversation.

I was with relatives I see in person about once every two years. Many a conversation began with the words, “I saw on Facebook that you…” with the conversation starter going on to ask about kids, pets, vacations or marriages.

“Social media is sold to us as a way to connect with distant friends and relatives. But tech giants don’t stop there,” Hawley said.

Hawley’s SMART bill also would require social media companies to create a “user-friendly interface” that would allow users to set time limits or boundaries for themselves and actively display how much time they had spent on any platform. They would have to have “choice parity for consent” with easy-to-use accept and decline boxes, which means I would have to inform Twitter on a monthly or weekly basis that I would like to continue using my Twitter account as much as I want to.

Hawley has made several moves in the face of Big Tech since he was elected to represent Missouri, but I don’t know that his plan to legislate us off of our social media apps is feasible. If we want badly enough to keep scrolling, we’ll do it, and developers will find ways and means to bypass the legal requirements written into the SMART Act.

I believe Hawley’s intention is good. I watched people of all ages continuously glance into the cell phone screens when they could have been hiking, playing games or just interacting with each other in conversation. 

There are plenty of apps out there that allow a user to monitor and limit their social media use or their cell phone use in general. I don’t believe federal law can make people actually those apps.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that Facebook users who reported “excessive time” on the application were more likely to take high risk gambles. When it came to impulse control, the excessive Facebook users studies had the same scores on a psychological test as persons who have or had battled drug addictions.

One of the main problems with studying social media addiction is the rapidly evolving nature of the platforms. They are changing so quickly that it’s difficult to develop baseline data for them. Moreover, such research into social media addiction is inconclusive and generally underfunded.

Hawley brings up several good points, and I think that is the good that will come from the introduction of the SMART Act. Its passage into law would be extremely difficult, but its publicity may get families talking, and it may encourage users to examine their potentially self-destructive habits with social media.

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