It’s no secret that Josh Hawley is not a friend of liberty. From his disastrous minimum wage hike plan to wishing for the death of Facebook, he has quickly cemented his place as one of Congress’ most authoritarian members (and that really says something). But on Tuesday, Hawley took another dangerous step away from freedom; the first-term senator now hopes to ban tech companies’ use of psychology to help bring in revenue.
Hawley’s new bill, the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act (SMART Act), starts off hot with a strong stance against psychology. In fact, the introduction states that this is “A bill to prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice”.
The bill then explains the regulations and bans that would result if it passed. They would be laughable if Josh Hawley wasn’t a despot capable of choking your freedom. Some of these include bans on infinite scroll on Instagram and autoplay on Youtube. Moreover, he seeks to put an end to the great evil of… Snap streaks on Snapchat? Yes, Hawley’s bill would ban “providing a user with an award for engaging with the social media platform”.
The Senator clearly doesn’t understand that psychology has always been, and always will be, a fundamental part of selling nearly any product.
Hawley Misunderstands Psychology
Have you ever been driving down the highway and come across a big neon sign denoting a building’s location? Maybe it’s for a restaurant chain or a local gas station. Like it or not, Josh, that’s psychology at work. The sign creates an impression in the individual’s head. Then, that person is more likely to buy that company’s product or use their service because of the advertisement. A simple billboard or any other advertisement work in a similar way. Behaviorally, it serves as a not-so-subtle persuasion for an individual to choose them over any other course of action.
Psychological persuasion is everywhere. There’s no denying it and there’s no getting rid of it. In fact, Hawley himself is guilty of using it. What else was he doing on the campaign trail besides trying to influence people (with varying degrees of subtlety) to choose him over the other options?
None of these rob the individual of free choice; the same is true of social media. At the end of the day, consumers are choosing to engage in something they want to do more and sacrificing something that they want to do less. This occurs when someone pulls off the highway to get dinner, when someone pulls a lever for Josh Hawley, and when someone maintains a Snapchat streak. There is nothing unique about social media that suggests it robs free choice more or less than any other producer, especially other online ones. As a result, Hawley is in a difficult corner. To remain consistent, he must either abandon his anti-Snapchat campaign or double down against, well, advertising as a whole. More likely, he will continue to abandon consistency.
Josh Hawley vs. Social Media
As I mentioned above, the senator has been an outspoken opponent of big tech companies. Specifically, he claims that they have “embraced a business model of addiction”. Is an improvement to the psychology of behavioral economics on par with an addiction to a hard narcotic? Almost certainly not.
Let’s assume, though, that the two are comparable: would it justify his bill? This time, the answer is a resounding no. Hawley is not the father of every American child on social media and he certainly shouldn’t be trying to play the role of one. Ultimately, it should be up to a parent whether or not a child can use a social media platform and how much he or she may use it. But Hawley thinks otherwise, wanting to insert a mandatory 30-minute time limit on all social media sites. The bill says that users may disable the limit, but that it resets on the first of every month.
The plan sounds like a great idea — for a father to implement for his 12-year-old daughter. Josh Hawley forgets that the country is not made up entirely of 12-year-old girls, but largely of adults who can choose what they want to do with their own lives. When someone signs up for social media, they agree to be subject to any psychological persuasions that the company uses to gain revenue. Hawley has no business making these decisions for individuals, households, or communities.
I have no qualm with Hawley’s implicit statement that social media takes up too much of the average American’s time. The issue comes with his desire to stick government (your tax money) in places where it doesn’t belong. However right or wrong it may be, people using social media are not hurting anyone. Why is it necessary to enact legislation to try to force them off of it? Josh Hawley can have his moral code but should keep to enforcing it within his own household.
Luckily, there are already ways to counteract the effects of excessive social media use. And go figure, they didn’t come from the government. Whether Hawley realizes this or not, the market reacts to consumer desires. When people want to stop using their phones so much, companies will help them do so, and some already have.
Apps to Reduce Use
One of the best apps for exactly this process is OurPact. It allows users to set screen time limits for themselves and for children with a parental control feature. AppDetox operates similarly, placing time limits on certain apps by allowing users to set their own rules. Perhaps American citizens know what guidelines work for them better than Josh Hawley does.
Apple has also taken some steps forward in helping users to manage their screen time. Satisfying the consumer to sell more phones, they have implemented screen time and app time limits. Moreover, they have a setting that allows you to turn your phone black-and-white. Anecdotally, this feature (found in Settings — General — Accessibility — Display Accommodations — Color Filters — Grayscale) has been immensely valuable. Reducing the eye-popping colors that phones and apps alike utilize can truly make a difference. Nonetheless, it isn’t any politician’s job to make that decision for hundreds of millions of people.