People Have Been Panicking About New Media Since Before the Printing Press
Politicians and activists claim social media is turning us into zombies. But new technologies have been greeted with skepticism since the dawn of time.
Are teenagers addicted to social media—and more depressed than ever because of it? Many politicians, consumer advocates, and even former employees of tech companies seem to think so.
The anti-tech consensus that's emerging includes a diverse array of characters: populist conservative political figures such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.); generational psychologist Jean Twenge; and Tristan Harris, a former ethicist and designer at Google, to name just a few.
They share a belief that modern technologies—smartphones in particular—are extremely addictive and therefore dangerous. Smartphones learn about you, which means they get better at keeping you hooked. The smartphone provides access to all sorts of apps using all sorts of sophisticated strategies to lure users back to the home menu and start swiping, sharing, and snapping. The result, according to the technophobes, is an epidemic of dependency and depression, particularly among young people.
"Big Tech works relentlessly to force individuals into its ecosystems of addiction, exhibitionism, and fear of missing out," writes Hawley in his recent book, The Tyranny of Big Tech (Regnery Publishing). "It seeks to create its own social universe and draw all life into its orbit." To defeat the menace, Hawley and his allies have proposed various schemes to bring Facebook, Google, and Twitter to heel—by limiting their features, taking away certain protections from legal liability, and even breaking them apart entirely.
Though the technology may be new, the irrational fear is not. Every invention that has expanded the communicative space—from the written word to the radio—has been accompanied by histrionic concerns about the potential for misuse and abuse. The fact that so many of these earlier tech panics failed the test of time should make us even more wary of the current paranoia.
In 2020, for instance, Pope Francis published an encyclical warning about the dangers of screen addiction. "Digital media can also expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships," he wrote. But the more things change, the more they stay the same: In 1956, Pope Pius XII had warned that certain books emphasizing vice have an effect on readers that "totally paralyzes higher faculties and produces a permanent disorder, an artificial need of passionate character that at times reaches a real aberration."
In 1936, the government of St. Louis, Missouri, tried to ban car radios because a "determined movement" had become convinced that the radio distracted drivers and caused car accidents. The car radio was widely feared by newspapers, which were competitors and had every incentive to sensationalize the product's dangers. The Charlotte News fretted in 1926 that radio was "keeping children and their parents up late nights, wearing down their vitality for lack of sleep and making laggards out of them at school." In his 1963 book, Passion and Social Constraint, the Dutch-American sociologist Ernest van den Haag lamented that the portable radio "is taken everywhere—from seashore to mountaintop—and everywhere it isolates the bearer from his surroundings" and that mass media alienate us "from each other, from reality, and from ourselves."
In 1898, The New York Times panned Thomas Edison's newly invented phonograph. "Our very small boys will fear to express themselves with childish freedom," wrote the Times. "Who will be willing even in the bosom of his family to express any but the most innocuous and colorless views?" As Jason Feifer of the Twitter account Pessimists Archive put it, the Times was essentially articulating the most modern concern of all: Edison's invention would lead to cancel culture.
"Something ought to be done to Mr. Edison," wrote the Times in another article. "And there is a growing conviction that it ought to be done with a hemp rope." Newspapers were so freaked out about Edison's revolutions in communications that they wanted him dead.
Samuel Pepys, the 17th century English administrator known for his famous diary, wrote that he felt addicted to his watch and had stopped wearing it because he couldn't help but frequently check the time. Plato, the Athenian philosopher who died in 423 B.C., disapproved of the major innovation of ancient times: the written word. Writing things down, Plato complained, will "implant forgetfulness in men's souls." For as long as people have crafted new tools to make life slightly better, other people have predicted that those tools would spell the end of civilization.
In recent decades, televisions, computers, and video games have prompted considerable tech panic. In 1982, CBS' Dan Rather reported on an epidemic of arcade machines. Children in Boston had "made a nuisance of themselves" with their overuse of the machines, and the situation had grown so dire that "senior citizens could not go into a laundromat" without encountering a group of kids playing PAC-MAN (the horror!). The report noted that no study had shown a connection between arcade games and violence but said the city would make an effort to reduce the number of such machines anyway.
Attempts to ban or restrict video games have only grown more numerous over the years as the games become more realistic and vivid; indeed, it is the video game panic that the current collective freakout over smartphone addiction most closely resembles. The iPhone is a fancier gadget than the Nintendo 64, but except in extreme cases, its brain-rotting power is not really more pronounced. A hundred years from now, complaints about both machines will probably sound as silly as complaints about the phonograph.
Are Smartphones Responsible for Teens' Depression?
It's true that rates of depression among young people have increased since 2011, and the suicide rate for 15- to 19-year-olds has steadily risen since 2008. Twenge, the psychologist, thinks the ubiquity of smartphones is the most likely culprit. "It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades," she writes in 2017's iGen (Atria Books). "Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones."
Her book's title comes from the term Twenge uses to de-scribe people born after 1995. According to Twenge, iGen came of age during a time of easy access to smartphones. Consequently, they have vastly different social habits than the teens who came before them. They go out less, eschewing literal hangouts with friends in favor of virtual hangouts that they can attend without ever leaving the comfort of their bedrooms. Paradoxically, this accessibility makes them less happy, according to Twenge, whose book is filled with statistics that purportedly underscore her point. The share of teens who experienced a major depressive episode increased from 8 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2015, for instance, and teens' self-reported rates of happiness and sense of belonging similarly declined in recent years. In 1991, just 23 percent of high schoolers said they did not enjoy life, but that figure increased to 29 percent in 2015.
"The data from these surveys is stark," writes Twenge. "Teens' depressive symptoms have skyrocketed in a very short period."
Skyrocketed might be overstating the matter, but Twenge's point is taken: Young people did report somewhat higher levels of anxiety in the 2010s than the same age group did 10 or 20 years previously—something that New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President Greg Lukianoff have also noted in their 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind. Based on surveys with some young people, she thinks smartphones are a plausible explanation. Since mobile devices provide easy access to social media, teens are constantly able to check in with their friends, see what they're doing, and browse their pictures. For young people, social media is disproportionately the province of positive content: They post pictures in which they look good, using filters that improve the quality of the images. Twenge theorizes that this could lead users, particularly teenage girls, to come away thinking everyone else is having fun and looking great, thus heightening feelings of jealousy, isolation, and inadequacy. "iGen has a specific term for this: FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)," Twenge notes. "In many ways it sounds like a recipe for loneliness."
At the same time, teens are actually going out less. Members of iGen delay getting driver's licenses because they don't need cars to see their friends—they can see them all the time, on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Twenge and others have posited, not unreasonably, that many of today's teens are less resilient and independent than their predecessors. This makes them more reliant on their parents, though not exactly any closer to them; kids who stare at their phones all day are often at home, but it's not as if they're interacting all that much with their families.
Of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. While screen addiction may seem like the cause of kids' increasing mental anxiety, researchers have not established such a connection, and in any case, these increases are not so bafflingly large.
"The data [Twenge] chooses to present are cherry-picked, by which I mean she reviews only those studies that support her idea and ignores studies that suggest that screen use is not associated with outcomes like depression and loneliness," wrote Sarah Rose Cavanagh, a psychologist at Assumption University, in a 2017 article for Psychology Today. Cavanagh noted that some studies actually found that more smartphone usage was associated with higher rates of resiliency and happiness. This would not be entirely surprising: Teens who use social media more frequently are engaging with their friends—with people they care about—and might actually be better off because of it.
A review of the relevant data by Alexandra Samuel—a tech writer who holds a doctorate in political science from Harvard—also reached conclusions at odds with Twenge's. According to Samuel, teen happiness rates have barely budged at all over the last 20 years. More notably, kids who reported high levels of smartphone use weren't less happy than their peers; if anything, the reverse was true.
"Take a more granular look at the full range of usage, and it looks like the biggest risk of unhappiness is among those poor twelfth graders who don't use social media at all," wrote Samuel in JSTOR Daily. "Quick! Someone get those kids a smartphone!"
Indeed, 12th-graders who reported a moderate amount of social media use—six to nine hours a week—were least likely to describe themselves as unhappy, according to survey data. Teens who were truly addicted to their phones (that is, those spending 40-plus hours on them per week) had poorer happiness levels, but kids who never used social media were the unhappiest of all.
Even if teens' self-reported mental health rates have declined alongside smartphone ubiquity, one could propose alternate explanations. The teens of today might simply be more willing to admit to survey collectors that they're mentally unwell than were the teens of yesteryear. The stigma surrounding the discussion of depression or suicidal feelings has largely vanished for younger millennials and Gen Zers, who talk openly about their various traumas and triggers. Keeping a stiff upper lip is out; confessing your self-diagnosis is in.
And if there is a problem and smartphones are part of it, the downsides must still be weighed against the benefits, which are considerable. While it's fine to worry about teens becoming depressed and isolated—and perpetually at home—there are tradeoffs. Teens that increasingly socialize with their friends via apps, for instance, are less likely to drive home drunk, smoke, have premarital sex, or experience unwanted pregnancies.
The COVID-19 pandemic made kids even more reliant on their smartphones, but can anyone blame them? Moreover, could anyone disagree that we should count ourselves lucky that this technology existed at the time the pandemic struck? The massive disruption to the lives of young people was one of the most awful side effects of the disease: Schools shut down all over the world, and in the United States—unlike in Europe—most remained closed even through the end of 2020. The social lives of many children, and most teenagers, are built around school. It's where they see their friends and join clubs and sports teams. The pandemic deprived millions of young people of a central part of their identity: social interaction with other young people.
Virtual interaction is no substitute for the real thing, as the embarrassing farce of Zoom learning has shown, but it's certainly better than nothing at all. For teenagers desperate for even a taste of something normal, social media was there for them. It's unlikely that most teenagers would have been in a better place, mentally and emotionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic if they had not had Facebook, Snapchat, or TikTok.
No, Social Media Doesn't Turn Us All Into Zombies
One of the cleverer assertions of the anti-smartphone crowd is that the choice to spend all day tweeting, sharing, and liking content isn't really a choice at all but an addiction that social media are uniquely designed to foster. The people who built the apps on our phones have the same incentives as a casino, according to this thinking: Keep the gambler at the table. Deliver the brain the hit of dopamine it requires to stay engaged with the product.
A particularly dystopic version of this argument is presented in The Social Dilemma, Netflix's much-discussed 2020 documentary on tech addiction. The film drew wide praise. IndieWire called it "perhaps the single most lucid, succinct, and profoundly terrifying analysis of social media ever created for mass consumption." The New York Times said it was "remarkably effective in sounding the alarm."
The Social Dilemma consists of two interwoven parts: a fictional story involving a typical American family slowly succumbing to screen addiction, and a series of interviews with tech experts and industry whistleblowers who have serious concerns about the machines they helped to build. Collectively, their testimony creates a frightening portrait of algorithms working tirelessly to keep people hooked to their phones. The algorithms do this not because they are like the evil robots from The Terminator or The Matrix that want to enslave us but because their purpose is to generate more data about users: what kinds of content we like to share, our shopping habits, which sports or music events interest us, our political and religious views, our sexual preferences, our personality archetypes, and on and on. Users unwittingly supply this data all the time; social media companies can even track how long a user will linger on a certain image or video before losing interest.
"All this data that we're just pouring out all the time is being fed into these systems that have almost no human supervision and are making better and better and better predictions about what we're going to do and about who we are," warns Sandy Parakilas, formerly of Facebook and Uber, one of The Social Dilemma's experts.
Over time, a clearer picture of the user emerges. Social media companies then use this information to sell ads that are tailored to individual tastes. When Facebook suggests you might be interested in purchasing a new soccer ball, or a lawn mower, or Batman pajamas, it's making a guess based on all the relevant pieces of information it's collected about you.
"[Tech] companies have more information about us than has ever been imagined in human history," Shoshana Zuboff, a professor of business at Harvard, says in the film. "This is what every business has ever dreamt of, to have a guarantee that if it places an ad it will be successful."
Even the most sophisticated algorithms can guarantee no such thing, of course, but this is not a particularly subtle film. The consulted experts view the process of collecting data and making informed recommendations to be straightforwardly nefarious and manipulative. They are the geniuses who figured out how to hijack our brains, and we are the exploited morons.
"Companies like Google and Facebook roll out lots of tiny experiments that they were constantly doing on users," Parakilas explains. "Over time, by running these constant experiments, you develop the most optimal way to get users to do what you want them to do. It's manipulation. You are a lab rat. We are all lab rats. And it's not like we're lab rats for developing a cure for cancer. We're just zombies and they want us to look at more ads so they can make more money."
It should probably be noted here that nobody is forcing anyone to use Facebook—and while the platform's aims might not be as lofty as curing cancer, the anti-tech crusaders are overstating the case against advertisements. People are not zombies. They do not feel compelled to buy everything that is pitched to them. Ads can be irritating, but it's not as if every one of them is selling a harmful product. On the contrary, it can be beneficial to have a curated feed of products, tailored to the user's preferences, that he or she might be interested in buying. If a platform is going to sell ads—and since that's the way such companies make money, it must—is it not preferable for the ads to suggest products that are actually relevant?
Compare it with television, where advertisements aren't individually tailored in the same way. I have to sit through a whole lot of car commercials when I watch TV; as a city dweller, there is no chance that I will buy a car in the near future. On the other hand, I might actually want to buy the clothing, books, or video games that social media algorithms recommend for me. It would be impressive—and worrying—if social media could make me buy the car I don't actually want or need. But it can't.
And yet The Social Dilemma's tech skeptics act as if their products constitute a form of mind control. The film's most prominent representative of this view is undoubtedly Tristan Harris, who left Google in 2015, in part due to his concerns that the computer programs he was building were so addictive that they may become a threat to humanity.
"When I was at Stanford, this is what we learned: How can we use everything we know about the psychology of what persuades people and build that into technology?" he says in the film. "It operates just like the slot machines in Vegas. It's not enough to use the product consciously. I want to dig down deeper into the brainstem and implant inside of you an unconscious habit so that you are being programmed at a deeper level—you don't even realize it."
"Every time you see [your phone] there on the counter, you just look at it and you know if you reach over it just might have something for you," he continues. "You play that slot machine to see what you got. That's not an accident; that's a design technique."
Harris and the others seem quite proud of themselves for inventing this technology, though they now believe it represents an existential crisis. Throughout the film, they sound more than a little like they view themselves as akin to the Manhattan Project scientists, suddenly fearful of a destructive thing they've created. But that thing is not an atomic bomb; it's the "like" button. Levelheaded people should realize these aren't equivalent dangers.
The irrational fear that scientists have figured out how to hack the human brain and use advanced techniques to force people to do, say, or buy things is not new. In 1957, the social critic and journalist Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, which claimed that the advertising industry was using subliminal messaging to ensnare customers. Billed as a "revealing, often shocking, explanation of new techniques of research and methods of persuasion," the book showed "how today's advertising men are using our hidden urges and frustrations to sell everything from gasoline to politicians." The book arrived just as televisions were becoming ubiquitous—at the start of the 1950s few homes had TVs, but by the end of the decade more than 80 percent of them did—and its publication coincided with growing public opposition to consumerism.
Some people, suspicious that TV commercials had some kind of hypnotic power, readily accepted Packard's arguments and demanded government intervention. Several countries, including Britain and Australia, went so far as to ban subliminal messaging—defined as images and sounds that consumers are not consciously aware of—in advertising. In the United States, the practice is not prohibited by law, though the Federal Communications Commission issued a statement in 1974 that it is "contrary to the public interest." As late as 1993, half of all people surveyed for a public opinion poll thought advertisements contained subliminal messages and that this practice was effective.
Those who worked in advertising, though, knew all along that the book's claims were massively inflated. "Most people of cognitive ability in Western capitalistic cultures understand the persuasive intent of advertising [and] are quite adept at deciphering its meanings," the Journal of Advertising noted in a 2013 retrospective on the book.
The Social Dilemma's algorithmic manipulators are just as unthreatening as the hidden persuaders of long ago, except many of today's persuaders are actually convinced by their own magic tricks. In the film's most unintentionally hilarious moment, Harris claims that social media's addictiveness and capacity to control people's actions make it a threat to humanity, not just an interesting invention like, for instance, the bicycle. "No one got upset when bicycles showed up, right?" said Harris. "Like, if everyone's starting to go around on bicycles, no one said, 'Oh, my God, we've just ruined society.'"
But that's laughably wrong. Of course people complained that bicycles were ruining society! "There is not the slightest doubt that bicycle riding, if persisted in, leads to weakness of mind, general lunacy, and homicidal mania," wrote The New York Times in an August 1884 editorial. Some claimed that watching the wheels turn drove men insane, while others fretted that women now had too many opportunities to get out of the house. Doctors in the 19th century created a fake medical condition ("bicycle face") and said that excessive riding would make people uglier by giving them bulging eyes and clenched jaws. (The horse-and-buggy industry was all too happy to promote these ridiculous claims.)
These mistakes should cause a rational person to be skeptical of the bleak picture painted by the new anti-tech evangelists. For a film that purports to warn viewers about being manipulated, it certainly engages in plenty of the bad behavior it's decrying.
Tough Love, Not Top-Down Regulation
It's possible to be concerned about screen addiction without being paranoid about it. Yet the proposed legislative remedies significantly overstate the dangers while offering unworkable and possibly unconstitutional solutions.
Take the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act, which was introduced by—surprise!—Sen. Hawley in July 2019. The bill would prohibit social media companies from utilizing several features, including "infinite scroll," which is when more content is loaded into a feed as a user browses; there's no need to hit the refresh button or click to an additional page. (The inventor of this feature, Aza Raskin, deeply regrets it—he is one of the tech skeptics interviewed in The Social Dilemma.)
Hawley's bill would also make it illegal for platforms to automatically play music or videos, as when an embedded YouTube video begins playing on Twitter as soon as the user encounters it. (This law wouldn't apply to advertisements.) "Streak" badges—which are awarded by Snapchat to users who send messages to each other on consecutive days—would also face the ax under Hawley's bill.
The legislation goes even further: Social media companies would be required to create a feature that automatically kicks users out of the platform every 30 minutes. This would be the new default, and though users would be allowed to manually disable it, they would have to do so again every month.
"The business model for many internet companies, especially social media companies, is to capture as much of their users' attention as possible," the bill reads. "To achieve this end, some of these internet companies design their platforms and services to exploit brain physiology and human psychology. By exploiting psychological and physiological vulnerabilities, these design choices interfere with the free choices of users."
That's one way of looking at the matter, though one could make a more compelling case that top-down regulation interferes with the free choice of users by telling them which features they're permitted to access. This is the general problem with Hawley's approach to tech issues, which presumes that the government, rather than private companies and their customers, should be the final decision maker. The Federal Trade Commission, a vast government bureaucracy, would be charged with ensuring compliance with the SMART Act, and the Department of Health and Human Services would be empowered to propose new rules to prevent the exploitation of "human psychology or brain physiology." That's a mandate so broad it could give the government vast new powers to restrict social media companies in undesirable ways.
Recall that this legislation has been proposed despite the lack of any solid scientific evidence suggesting a link between social media and psychological problems. "The literature is a wreck," Anthony Wagner, chair of the psychology department at Stanford University, told Vox's Brian Resnick. "Is there anything that tells us there's a causal link? That our media use behavior is actually altering our cognition and underlying neurological function or neurobiological processes? The answer is we have no idea. There's no data."
Hawley has also co-sponsored legislation with Sens. Ed Markey (D–Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D–Conn.) that would prohibit online gaming companies from including cost incentives in games sold to the under-18 crowd. The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act specifically prohibits "loot boxes," which are in-game prizes that cost a certain amount of money. (A player in an online fighting game, for instance, could pay real-life dollars in order to receive better virtual weapons, or maybe a cooler costume, for his or her fighter.) Hawley described loot boxes as akin to "gambling directed at children."
"Congress must send a clear warning to app developers and tech companies: Children are not cash cows to exploit for profit," said Blumenthal in a statement.
But the idea that loot boxes represent unlicensed gambling aimed at kids doesn't really hold up. People who purchase loot boxes don't have any expectation that they're going to profit, beyond whatever emotional satisfaction or virtual peacocking is offered by the loot in question.
"This legislation is flawed and riddled with inaccuracies," retorted the Entertainment Software Association in a statement. "It does not reflect how video games work nor how our industry strives to deliver innovative and compelling entertainment experiences to our audiences."
If legislation is not a viable solution, can anything be done to combat some of the actual problems with tech addiction? Yes, but the answer isn't easy or flashy: It's for parents to exercise greater responsibility, talk to their kids about how much they rely on their phones, and set reasonable limits on screen time. In practice, this is no different from setting limits on TV or video game time. Though the devices in question are portable, the principle is the same.
One of the clearest findings that emerges from the data on teen depression rates and smartphone use is that kids who don't get enough sleep are more likely to experience emotional distress: Exhaustion makes them moodier, edgier, and more likely to fall asleep during class. Sleep deficits cause their various stresses to compound and make schoolwork harder. So even though it's not entirely clear that social media itself is making kids depressed, it is true that kids who stay up all night on their phones can end up in a rough mental state. We don't need to wait for a law to address this: Parents, just take the phones away before bedtime.
Social media and smartphones offer plenty of new distractions, but ultimately we have the ability and presence of mind to deal with them. The government is not the only source of moral authority in society—quite the contrary, since the proclamations of political figures are often dubious. Wherever tech addiction does exist, the burden of countering it must devolve to families, teachers, coaches, pastors, and other local sources of guidance.
The job of raising well-adjusted young people can be difficult, but a public policy war on the technologies that made life bearable for kids during the pandemic will not improve things. To the extent that COVID-19 and related lockdowns precipitated a genuine teen mental health crisis—with depression and even suicide attempts rising among kids who were kept out of school and away from sports for a full year—it's likely that smartphones and social media mitigated their misery. These technologies are not sufficient replacements for human contact, but they made 2020 a little less bad for a whole lot of people. Even teenage boys who spent the pandemic playing hours of online video games with their friends were engaged in a form of socialization that might very well have saved them from total despair.
To the extent that tech can become an addiction, support and love—even tough love—from friends and family members is probably the best antidote. When I was a 12-year-old with a brand new Nintendo 64, my mother limited me to one hour of video games on weekdays. In adulthood, my wife kindly reminds me to get off Twitter from time to time. We can take care of each other without the government's help.