US bill could ban ‘addictive’ social media practices

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A new US bill has proposed a ban on autoplaying videos on YouTube, Facebook’s infinite newsfeed and Snapchat’s Snapstreak badges.

The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (Smart) Act takes aim at techniques and features that, according to its author, Republican Senator Josh Hawley, are created to encourage and deepen addictive behaviours among users.

The bill targets “practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice” and specifically prohibits four general practices:

  • Infinite scroll or auto refill, such as the Facebook newsfeed or a Twitter timeline, which automatically loads in new content when the user nears the end of the existing content, without requiring any specific request from readers.
  • Autoplay, when a site automatically plays music or video “without an express, separate prompt by the user”, as on YouTube and Facebook. Curiously, the bill explicitly excludes autoplaying advertisements from its coverage, despite the general unpopularity of that content. It also provides exceptions for autoplaying music on music streaming services, and autoplaying from a pre-built playlist.
  • Badges and other awards linked to engagement with the platform. These are most notably used by Snapchat in the form of the Snapstreak badges, which mark how long two friends have exchanged daily messages. Parents have complained that the Snapstreak mechanic leads to problematic behaviour from children, who fear their friendship is at risk if the streak ends.
  • “Elimination of natural stopping points”, a catch-all category for any website that loads more content than a typical user scrolls through in three minutes without the user expressly requesting that additional content.

“Big Tech has embraced addiction as a business model,” Hawley said in a tweet. “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.”


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