How to Restrain Big Tech Immediately

A year ago, University of Georgia professor Cas Mudde took to Twitter and asked: “How do you manage to stay informed about political news and stay mentally balanced?” In his next tweet, he confessed too much time on social media was contributing to anxiety and depression.

With this, Mudde expressed a sentiment many social media users share. As we discuss policy issues tied to social media—tech regulation, free speech, foreign influence—we shouldn’t lose sight of the damaging psychological effects of today’s information environment. You may not want to hear this a week before the election, but social media addiction is a public health issue. Big Tech is the new Big Tobacco.

So what? Well, maybe the simplest solution to social media-induced wreckage is right in front of us: moderation. Spend less time online, both personally and collectively.

Public health could be one of the most powerful strategies for restraining the power of Big Tech. And it would save lives. 

A Society of Addicts

As the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” chronicles, social media companies are engineering us into a nation of addicts. The consequences aren’t pretty. A 2017 study estimates that 210 million people suffer from social media addiction. Other studies have found a negative correlation between social media addiction and life satisfaction. Those who tweet constantly and post fabulous Instagram pics may suffer more than others, despite appearances to the contrary. 

“Peer influence,” of course, is the name of the game. Let’s not forget social media germinated in the highly competitive milieu of elite college students by way of Facebook. The mechanics of social media seem to keep us in a state of permanent adolescence, competing for ephemeral chits of online peer approval when we should be focusing on real-world problems like tent cities and deaths of despair. Social media is the perfect addiction machine. “Just one more selfie to take the edge off.”

Unsurprisingly the young are the heaviest users of these platforms. Ten percent of teens check their phones more than 10 times per night. One study found that teens who spend five or more hours on their phone a day were almost twice as likely to exhibit depressive symptoms than counterparts who spend one hour on their phones. 

Young, single women are more addicted to social media than any other group, which may explain their higher rates of depression. What does this mean for society as these women age into maturity? 

Social media addiction is deadlier than most realize. The National Safety Council estimates that 26 percent of all car crashes involve cell phones. Teen suicide is up 57 percent since 2007 in eerily direct correlation to the growth of social media. 

Symptoms of depression likewise increased by 52 percent between 2005 and 2017 among 18 to 25-year-olds, according to a study by the American Psychological Association—which cited digital media as a contributing factor. There’s a lot of suffering behind those selfies and hot takes.

Beyond Suffering

My journey has taken me from publicly predicting the weaponization of social media in geopolitics, to cheerleading pro-Trump media, to helping find solutions for the social and political impact of social media. There’s a realpolitik aspect of today’s information environment. I’ve seen firsthand the damage it can cause to an individual.

It is tempting to blame one set of people or another for our toxic information environment, but there’s a long history of new media causing massive social disruption. Consider, for example, the connection between the printing press and the Thirty Years’ War as a warning from history.

Like the printing press, social media brings many positives. It has broadened democratic discourse, created new ways to connect and communicate, and unleashed new entertainment and educational opportunities accessible at any time and place. More than half the global population now uses social media. 

It has become trendy among some journalists to portray today’s information environment as a dystopia. A growing number are challenging First Amendment protections. “Too much information is corrupting the marketplace of ideas,” the thinking goes. “Free speech is being weaponized against democracy.” As much as I disagree with this assessment of the zeitgeist, I do agree our relationship with social media isn’t healthy. 

The First Step: Admit We Have A Problem

My personal solution is to take breaks. This month my “sober October” includes no alcohol or Twitter. 

Alcohol and social media are more similar than might seem to be the case at first. Both are socially ubiquitous, trigger physiological reactions, and are used as psychological copes. Both have consequences for over-use. With alcohol you get hangovers and bloating. With social media you get anxiety and depression. 

The Naked Mind is a popular book among those going sober. It is remarkable how applicable its content is to social media addiction. The book’s goal is to empower people to define their relationship with alcohol on their terms, to rewire the unconscious triggers driving their behavior. Sound familiar?

“Alcohol is the only drug on earth you have to justify not taking,” writes author Annie Price in the book, pointing to its ubiquity in our culture. “Not true,” I thought when reading this. Social media is even more intertwined in our personal and work lives than alcohol. For many people, our very livelihoods depend on our presence on these platforms. We are like bartenders with drinking problems.

There’s an urgent need to bring more consciousness to how we use social media, both individually and collectively. The first step, I believe, is to admit we have a problem and exercise some moderation. Another tweet, another selfie, another “new connection” or “viral moment” isn’t the solution, just like a morning shot to take the edge off isn’t what the problem drinker needs. 

This is where I see opportunities for social and public policy solutions—to nudge us toward moderation. We need to confront social media addiction as the public health crisis it is. We need to restrain the power of Big Tech to spread mass addiction, in addition to all the other reasons for restraining its power. Besides, why spend so much time on platforms that hate you?

Just as with alcoholism and other addictions, a nagging question hangs in the air for many of us: is moderation even possible? 

Editor’s note: Jeff Giesea is the executive producer of MODERATION, a new fiction podcast about content moderators at a social media platform. Described as “dark and funny” and “a psychological thriller,” MODERATION puts a human face on the effects of social media and our dependence on technology, even as it seems to threaten our humanity. Get it on iTunes at apple.co/35ltoIU.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.

17 responses to “How to Restrain Big Tech Immediately”

  1. Yes, that’s the answer: now public health services have shown that they’re a mechanism of dictatorship, put them onto the problem. That’ll save us, all right, because all we need is more authoritarian figures ordering us around.

  2. An article that started really strong (loved the reference to Gutenberg and the 30 Years War) but then petered out into a clichéd conclusion. Yeah, well, we should use moderation with social media. But also with eating, drinking, dating, watching movies, playing games, shopping, etc., etc.

    Also, what is the difference between social media properly defined (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and other online interactive functions available to us? Just like the one I’m using right now as I type this? Or the YouTube channels and blogs we call the “alternative media”? What’s their relative impact on our culture, and is it all negative (my view is: definitely not!).

    Anyway, his conclusion doesn’t tell me what the title of the article promises. Restrain tech giants by preaching moderation in social media use? Good luck with that.

  3. Well, nudging us doesn’t sound like ordering us. I thought the comparison about the printing press and the Thirty Years’ War fell flat – after all, the printing press proved indispensable, no matter the initial consequences. Since the worst effects of social media are on the young, perhaps schools can take up the cause in warning students’ of its malign effects.

  4. One solution is to simply disappear several thousand tech execs until tech firm behavior improves.

  5. The way to end big tech is simple: BAN TARGETED ADVERTISING.

    Cut off their revenue. End their data collection and spying. Stop their excuse for censorship and demonetization.

    Ban targeted advertising.

  6. How to you propose to limit peoples’s electronic addictions without taking away their freedom?
    You could use wi-fi blockers at places of employment. Being you’re working on privately owned property, that might pass the test.
    Or in schools?
    You can also have company policies that prohibit cell phone use, but this really only does any good with people that are working, and they’re not really the problem.

  7. These topics have been discussed for years. The whole business model of silicon valley is to lock you in and force you to respond to alerts and always was because it’s basically a money printing machine. Look at Google’s revenue.

    But articles like these outside of mainstream sources are pointless. If you are not on CNN or Ars Technica or Techmeme or Y Combinator, you are not a part of the tech conversation in any way. If your thoughts become popular and shared widely on various platforms, our tech overlords will just ban you, delete all of your accounts, and make it your problem to try to fight your way back into the conversation. The only reason you are allowed to publish something like this online is that your opinion is irrelevant. The leftists who control technology in the US are intentionally using their platforms to destroy our way of life so that they can usher in a socialist utopia. Tobacco companies really just wanted you to buy more smokes. They didn’t have a political agenda to enslave you to a foreign communist empire.

    Both parties have been complicit in this catastrophe because of lobbyist money, which is why no one has done anything about it all along… and likely never will. The only people whining about it are the right wing people who have simply been forced to watch as our political elites (Republican and Democrat) flushed America down the toilet for an easy buck.

  8. The problem is the confusion of public and private, and the things the First Amendment applies to and the things it does not. The First Amendment says:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    It does not apply to traffic on Facebook or to Google search results, or anything like TikTok or whatever next comes down the pipe. The First Amendment applies to laws passed by Congress, and through the amendments to the Constitution it applies to State and Local units of government. Any law or state action that impacts speech must be content neutral – it cannot favor one point of view or another. A local unit of government can impose restrictions on time place and manner of use of a public facility for a rally or demonstration, but it has to be content neutral in the way it applies those restrictions.

    But those are public facilities.

    Facebook or any of the other social media actors are private services that utilize the internet as a means of connecting to users. Users agree to a terms of service agreement imposed by the service, in order to use the service. Facebook can appoint committees all day long to review policies about controversial communications that they will allow or not allow, the point is they are imposing their subjective judgment about what ideas and expressions can be trafficked on their services.

    I think the Occam’s Razor solution is federal ownership of the internet backbone, the physical infrastructure on which the internet operates. Without question, the First Amendment would apply.

  9. The very same solution of a public health approach that was applied to tobacco applies to pornography as well as social media/ big tech.

    The studies are already there, completed and accepted by the academic community. They are ready for use. The only thing wanting is government action and the private law suits for billions and billions and hundreds of billions of dollars. Let’s go in and break their backs.

  10. Great piece. Thank you.
    I recommend “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, two (liberal) college professors who have come to the same conclusions about the pernicious impact of social media on mental health and democracy.
    They have sen a radical change in the mental health of students that corresponds to the rise in social media use. They hypothesize there is more than mere correlation and their hypotheses are backed up with careful research.
    Worth reading.

  11. Vicious content moderation. My comment was not hateful, did not mention any ethnic groups or protected groups, and expressed nothing that could in any way be interpreted as “hate speech”.

    And yet the ban hammer of moderation blocked it because I was critical of the author’s point.

    So, forget this site.

  12. I notice the the ability to simply “like” a comment has been removed.
    I don’t like that.

  13. I see that the ability to simply “like” someone’s comment has been removed.
    Why?

  14. Oh! Now I feel so violated. Guess I’ll have to find someone else to blame for all this.
    You may have been on track at the beginning but I think you may have lost some the impact toward the end.

  15. I have quit Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn. It was as if the door to freedom opened up. They are a waste of time! Give it a try for 30 days and you will love it.

  16. One thing we could do now: Google, Facebook, and Twitter are publicly traded businesses. The SEC could suspend further trading and remove them from the stock exchanges pending the outcome of a federal investigation into voter manipulation. If the Mueller and Durham investigations are any indicators, a federal probe might take a while as the lawyers dot the I’s and cross the T’s. The investors behind these companies might not appreciate that, and perhaps could be convinced to replace corporate leadership.