It’s time to stop beating ourselves up over our screen addictions.
Enough self-loathing over the pointless scrolling that robs endless hours, not to mention our self-respect. And those of us with kids so glued to Snapchat and YouTube we forget what they look like can quit feeling like lousy parents.
The tech companies want us to believe our lack of self-control is a personal failing. In fact, they’ve designed their products for maximum addictive power. And the sooner we recognize that fact, the sooner we can do something about it.
That’s the message of a terrific new book by Seton Hall University law professor Gaia Bernstein, called “Unwired: Gaining Control Over Addictive Technologies,” out on Tuesday.
“We have been so engaged in self-blame,” Bernstein said in an interview. “We are fighting with ourselves, instead of looking outside to the public sphere, where this could change.”
In recent years, whistleblowers like Facebook’s Frances Haugen have shown us just how deliberately tech companies manipulate users to keep them online as long as possible, reeling in gamers — and their parents’ money — with Loot Boxes, keeping teenagers hooked on Instagram with affirming Likes, dragging Snapchat users back again and again to maintain utterly pointless Snapstreaks, keeping Facebook users engaged by promoting divisive posts.
In 2021, Haugen provided internal documents to The Wall Street Journal and others proving Facebook’s own research showed Instagram was harming teens, but the company chose to downplay it. They don’t really care, as long as they have eyes to sell to advertisers.
A slew of studies have shown just how toxic the compulsion has been, especially for younger people. Feelings of loneliness and sadness, sleep loss, and suicide rates among teens have all been rising since smartphones became widespread starting in 2007.
Our time is the primary resource for social media companies. Their success depends on keeping us glued as long as possible, and psychologists help them design features to elicit the dopamine highs that keep us hooked.
When the fight is this lopsided, all the self-help books in the world won’t show us how to win it. But history can.
Because of their disregard for their products’ toxic effects, the Internet giants are, Bernstein and others maintain, best seen as the shabby successors to the tobacco companies that dishonestly marketed their products with impunity for decades, until they were finally held liable for the damage done.
When you see the tech companies that way, a path to taking back control reveals itself — and, mercifully, it has nothing to do with that most elusive thing: self-discipline.
We can start with schools. Many assume that more technology in classrooms is better, but Bernstein says laptops on every desk don’t necessarily lead to better educational outcomes. They do, however, give students another avenue for distraction and toxic interaction. At the very least, we should make schools cellphone-free zones — including during recess. It will make hallways noisier, but kids will be happier. Of all the solutions Bernstein suggests, that one seems like the most doable.
“Parents can influence schools,” said Bernstein, who has teenage children. “You can start changing the norms around you.”
Beyond that, she says, we should be looking to the legal system, and legislation, to hold these corporations responsible. Breaking up the tech behemoths like Meta, parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, could encourage competition. Regulators like the Federal Trade Commission could target “black patterns,” the manipulative features that make it harder to disengage from social media.
And, just as they did with the tobacco industry, lawsuits could force the companies to behave responsibly. In January, two Seattle-area school districts sued the companies that own Instagram, Snapchat, and other apps, for knowingly harming young people’s mental health, forcing the schools to pay for the consequences. A New Jersey school district has brought a similar suit. This path will take time, but it very well might work.
None of us chose to be here. Our addictions crept up on us, goosed by an industry making enormous profits by seizing on our weaknesses and cornering our attention.
But we are not powerless. We just need to aim the blame where it belongs. And that’s not at ourselves.