Republican Senator Wants to Ban ‘Addictive’ Social Media Features Like Autoplay Video

Josh Hawley’s proposed act would also block infinite scrolling and place a 30-minute daily time limit for apps

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), one of Silicon Valley’s harshest critics in Washington, D.C., introduced a new bill on Tuesday that would ban “addictive” social media features. The legislation, if adopted, would impact several key features found on popular apps and sites like Instagram and YouTube.

Hawley’s Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act aims to “prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice.”

The SMART Act would ban infinite scrolling and auto-refilling, something that’s found on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  Moving forward, companies would need its users to click a button or sign-off before showing them more content at the bottom of a page. Autoplaying content, a staple of YouTube, would also be outlawed unless a user has curated a playlist of multiple music videos; music streaming services would be exempt from the act’s ban on autoplay features.

Social media companies would also be barred from rewarding its users with stickers and other forms of validation for habitually using their apps. This would likely hit Snapchat, which keeps track of its users’ “streaks,” or how often they’re talking and sending pictures to their friends.

Hawley’s proposed act also places an emphasis on how much time users are spending on social media. Platforms would be required to provide a “user-friendly interface” that lets users set a time limit for their app usage. Companies would also have to implement their own time limit of 30 minutes per day for each user, according to the act; users would then be able to manually adjust the time limit or remove it altogether.

“Big Tech has embraced addiction as a business model,” Hawley tweeted on Tuesday. “Their ‘innovation’ isn’t designed to create better products, but to capture attention by using psychological tricks that make it impossible to look away. Time to expect more & better from Silicon Valley.”

The act comes as there’s mounting evidence social media can be detrimental to mental health.

A 2017 study from the U.K. Royal Society for Public Health reported that Instagram was the social app most detrimental to mental health for people ages 14-24, often exacerbating their depression, anxiety or body image issues. Instagram, in particular, makes young women “compare themselves against unrealistic, largely curated, filtered and Photoshopped versions of reality,” the report said.

Earlier this month, Instagram expanded a test hiding the total number of “likes” on a user’s post. “We want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” an Instagram rep told TheWrap. Considering how likes and other forms of digital validation affect the brain, some social media experts believe it’s a worthwhile test.

“The brain responds to likes like any other reward or thing that excites the brain like food, sex or gambling,” Cal State  Fullerton University/USC professor Ofir Turel recently told TheWrap. “When you get likes, the reward system lights up and releases dopamine, making us feel good.”

That good feeling can become fleeting, though, as users get hooked on checking their phones for social validation after posting a picture or video. Turel, who has studied the impact of social media on the brain for more than a decade, said users habitually check their phones — including 40% of Americans while driving — because Instagram and other platforms have created a “variable reward,” something best associated with betting in a casino.

Sean Burch

Just a kid from the streets of Orange County, writing about tech