Hawley Introduces Plan to Prohibit Addictive Tech Practices

'Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction'

Sen. Josh Hawley / Getty Images

Big-tech critic Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) debuted a new bill Tuesday intended to ban certain digital practices which he says are designed to be addictive.

The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act would ban social media features like autoplay, "infinite scroll," and other designs meant to make it hard to stop using a site. It would also prohibit misleading user interface designs meant to trick users into offering consent, and would compel social media sites to build tools into their apps to allow users to more easily impose time limits on their use.

"Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction," Hawley said. "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."

Social media platforms are widely used by Americans. Some 69 percent use Facebook; substantial shares use other sites like Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat. Because these platforms' profit model is based on advertising, it is in their interest to keep user eyeballs on their sites. As Facebook co-founder Sean Parker once put it, the platform is designed to keep users clicking, including by taking advantage of their psychology.

Addiction to social media is not, however, a particularly well-defined concept. A review by psychologists Daria Kuss and Mark D. Griffiths did find that for a minority of social media users, use was linked to anxiety, depression, loneliness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and addictive behaviors. Others are not dependent in the same way, but their social media use can still be problematic.

"The good news is that very few people are genuinely addicted to social media," Griffiths writes. "However, many people's social media use is habitual and it can start to spill over into other areas of their lives and be problematic and dangerous, such as checking social media while driving."

Still, it seems as though Hawley and his allies are as concerned about the designs being used—and their psychological manipulation of users—as they are about who actually ends up clinically "addicted."

"Social media companies deploy a host of tactics designed to manipulate users in ways that undermines their wellbeing," said Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "We commend Senator Hawley for introducing legislation that would prohibit some of the most exploitative tactics, including those frequently deployed on children and teens."

Hawley's bill attracted immediate criticism from major tech firms. NetChoice, a trade association which represents e-commerce sites, claimed that the SMART Act would reduce social media sites' usefulness and and enjoyability.

"This bill would reduce the power of consumers to make decisions for themselves and give that power to the government," said Carl Szabo, NetChoice vice president and general counsel. "It's our role to decide what online services and tools we use, not the government's."

The SMART Act becomes Hawley's latest volley in his war on big tech. The freshman senator has also pushed for regulations on video game gambling, for prohibitions on sites like YouTube recommending videos containing children, and for updates to a bill protecting kids' privacy online. None of these bills has made it anywhere close to the floor—whether this latest one will remains to be seen.