A few days ago, activist investors Jana Partners and CalSTRS published an open letter asking Apple to take responsibility for its role in smartphone addiction. Their accurate thesis: this is a crisis and eventually, deeply-felt concerns about tech overuse from parents, teachers and individuals will catch up to the company and cost shareholders money. The message and purpose is to prod Apple and other tech giants to take steps to help people curb their addictions. Apple’s response was to tout future parental controls designed to mollify critics — nevermind that a substantial majority of tech overusers aren’t even children.
But this strategy is fundamentally flawed. Technology companies will not self-regulate around tech addiction — their entire business model depends on it. Asking them to be responsible for helping people reduce their use of their own devices and software would have been like asking Pablo Escobar to make his cocaine less potent — voluntarily.
There is an established history of what happens when we ask purveyors of addictive products to self-regulate. In the alcoholic beverage industry, it is “Please Drink Responsibly” stenciled onto every ad. It is obviously no deterrent, and “Please Facebook Responsibly” is unlikely to work much better. In the gambling industry, many jurisdictions require that casinos post a sign with an 800 number for problem gambling. This is usually somewhere very inconspicuous and when you call the number (funded by tax revenue from casinos, natch) you get a referral service. It is neither being shown at the right time (e.g. when someone is withdrawing thousands from an ATM) nor are there enough tech addiction counselors in the world to staff such a phone line. These concepts are window dressing without UX or the teeth to actually help.
Or maybe the industry will settle on something like Netflix’s approach — “Are you still watching?” — that has been held up by many pundits as a great idea. Responding to this kind of prompt is no different from Waze blocking you from taking an action with the “are you a passenger?” prompt. As anyone with a compulsive behavior pattern will tell you, it’s highly unlikely that such a notification would be an effective deterrent when you are in the throes of acting out. Plus, it’s trivially easy to clear this kind of warning by design. Sometimes you are the passenger, and software UX demands that we not lock you out at that precise moment.
And there’s the rub: everyone’s needs are unique: Sometimes you’re bingeing on Netflix because you’re avoiding work, and sometimes it’s because you are sick at home. For some people, zero minutes of adult content is the only viable solution, and for others it’s about not using when you’re at work, school or with your partner. In research using our anti-tech addiction platform Onward, we discovered that time spent doing a negative behavior was completely uncorrelated to the perceived severity (or commitment to change) of the person. So any approach that tries to enforce a single view of what’s appropriate will necessarily alienate and harm a substantial part of the population. The amount of “safe” screen time is entirely situational and people rightly reject an imposed limit as unfair and proscriptive.
In order to solve this burgeoning tech addiction crisis, we need interventions built around people — not the companies that are trying to addict them. Each person needs to be able to set their own limits, and — most importantly — they need to want to change their behavior. Imposing a top-down approach will only be a momentary blip and lead to worse outcomes (see pseudoephedrine restrictions and crystal meth).
And there’s the issue of the bottom line. Today’s tech companies depend entirely on monetizing user attention. This is precisely the reason they’re so good at monopolizing it: the ROI for addictive tech is astoundingly good. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg said that he wanted Facebook to ensure user time spent was time well spent. But unless the company is planning to cut its revenue in half (or more) by reducing the interest of articles shown in the news feed, it seems unlikely to be significant. After all, over 50% of Americans believe they are overusing their devices.
Addictive industries have never gone down without a fight — and substantial behavior change has to start with individual freedom and agency. These are immutable laws of nature, and they apply equally to Facebook, Apple and Google as they do to Anheuser Busch, Phillip Morris and the Sinaloa Cartel. So let’s learn from our past mistakes and ensure this burgeoning public health crisis is treated using data, clinical evidence and self-directed change.
Otherwise, we’re just asking people to please screen responsibly — and we all know how that will end up.
You can also download/share Onward with others who may need help.