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On July 30, Senator Josh Hawley proposed the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act to limit features on social media platforms that may contribute to social media addiction. Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, claims that Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, SnapChat, and other social media providers have “embraced a business model of addiction” to design products which “capture more attention by using psychological tricks that make it difficult to look away.”
As the campaign for greater regulation of “Big Tech” gathers bipartisan support, Hawley has become one of social media’s sharpest critics. Earlier this year, he accused social media corporations of “developing new schemes to hijack their users’ neural circuitry” to keep their attention on social media, all while selling their customers’ information, without permission, to third-party advertisers. He even called Facebook a “digital drug.” Since 2012, the amount of time that an average user spends on social media has increased by 56%, up to over two hours every day. The SMART Act is not likely to become law because no other Senator has sponsored the bill. However, consumer rights advocates and a few other Senators have praised Hawley’s efforts to prevent Americans, especially children and teenagers, from spending too much time online.
The SMART Act targets a variety of social media features which compel people to stay on social media for hours. In the words of the bill itself, the law would “prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice.” For example, the SMART Act would ban autoplay for videos and “infinite scroll” in newsfeeds on Facebook and other websites. These features provide users with an endless stream of instant content to read, watch, and share. The SMART Act would mandate “natural stopping points” in newsfeeds and “separate prompts” to play videos.
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The law would also require social media providers to alert users every thirty minutes that they’ve spent on their websites or apps, although there would be an exception for playlists on music streaming platforms like Spotify. Furthermore, every social media company would be required to give users an option for tracking the total amount of time they’ve spent on their platforms across all devices, with an additional option for users to self-impose time limits.
Furthermore, the SMART Act would prohibit social media companies from rewarding users for merely using their services. The “Snapstreak” feature on SnapChat is one example of this practice. Under the SMART Act, the Federal Trade Commission would have power to identify these practices and enforce the law to ban them.
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Both supporters and opponents of the SMART Act agree that the bill would significantly hinder the social media business model. It might even cost social media companies millions of dollars in lost advertising revenue. Nevertheless, no social media company has commented on the legislation. However, the Internet Association, which lobbies for social media companies, opposes Hawley’s bill and instead supports efforts to further study how social media affects children and adolescents.
Moreover, some critics of the bill, such as the libertarian R Street Institute, expressed concerns about government interference, while others disputed the existence of social media addiction. Some Silicon Valley leaders denounced the bill as arbitrary, overly broad, and potentially disruptive for businesses, entrepreneurs, and researchers who work on social media websites. The regulation of social media will undoubtedly remain a contentious political issue in the years to come.
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