In context: There have been plenty of studies on the ill effects of social media. Excessive use has been linked to depression, and platforms use tricks to keep us viewing longer. Now Congress is considering a bill that will restrict the way that social media companies can manipulate us.
The bill looks “to prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice, to require social media companies to take measures to mitigate the risks of internet addiction and psychological exploitation, and for other purposes,” reads the act’s introduction.
The practices that the bill refers to include features that coax users to continue viewing posts longer than they usually would. Things like infinite scrolling, engagement rewards, and auto-playing or auto-loading content that is not a function of the service would be banned from social media platforms. It also stipulates that icons used for accepting or declining agreements would have to be uniform — using the same font, size, and shape of buttons.
"It starts with techniques like ‘pull to refresh’, so you pull to refresh your newsfeed that operates like a slot machine."
These features allegedly to get users hooked to the scroll and meaningless gratification of gaining new trophies or awards for engaging. Tristan Harris, executive director of the Center for Humane Technology, testified before Congress last week about these addictive design practices.
“It starts with techniques like ‘pull to refresh’, so you pull to refresh your newsfeed,” Harris said. “That operates like a slot machine. It has the same kind of addictive qualities that keep people in Las Vegas hooked. Other examples are removing stopping cues. So if I take the bottom out of this glass and I keep refilling the water or the wine, you won’t know when to stop drinking. That’s what happens with infinitely scrolling feeds.”
The bill would also give platforms six months after the law is enacted to implement changes to help users control their usage. Site members would have to be allowed to set time limits. Companies would also have to provide regular usage reports spanning all devices. A 30-minute time limit would be mandatory as well. Users could opt-out of this restriction, of course, but it would reset once a month.
To me the legislation seems too overbearing. I’m all for time limits that users can voluntarily set. However, pushing restrictions on the public by force of law is too extreme. Users should be free to choose their limits without the government shoving arbitrary restrictions on viewing time down their throats.