Andreu’s blog

Facebook and social media are the new tobacco industry

Facebook and social media create addiction in the same way as tobacco does. Social media addiction is a mental illness (see the paper Social Media and Mental Health, for example). Social media addiction also infringes opportunity costs for those affected as they waste their time scrolling through news feeds.

Social media companies waste talent that could be put to better uses. What if instead of engineering addiction they created apps to help people cope with mental illness?

And to sustain this business they run huge data centers. This means both pollution during the manufacturing and disposal of hundreds of thousands of computers, and waste of electricity which contributes to global warming.

Martin Chavez proposes to regulate big tech like big banks. He is right to note the negative externalities that firms cause. I like his proposal because like bank regulation it focuses on big firms and may spare smaller rivals to entrenched actors, but I don’t think it goes far enough regarding social media. Social media is harmful for the health of those that engage with it and should be regulated like tobacco is in Western Europe.

Apps should come with warning labels like those on tobacco packaging, both the first time a user installs it and every time it is used. The warning should read: “Use of this app will damage your mental health”.

Regulators should set and enforce stricter age limits. It is illegal to sell tobacco to minors. At least some features of social media should be disabled for children. It may be OK to use a chat app, like Whatsapp or Messenger, but not Instagram or Facebook. In any case, no app should be allowed to show advertising to minors.

For more on that, read the letter from to Mark Zuckerberg urging him to cancel Instagram for kids.

Regulators should also explore ways to restrict the maximum amount of time per day a platform can keep a user hooked, as well as set a social media budget per day, maybe by requiring all platforms to implement common auto-restriction features enabled by default with strict settings. For example users should automatically be logged out after 20 minutes of use per day.

Socially responsible investors should not invest in social media. Social media creates addiction, damages people’s health and contributes to global warming. Social media has no place in a green/sustainable/socially responsible portfolio anymore than coal, tobacco or arms companies have. Socially responsible funds like the Norwegian pension fund should ditch shares in Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Nowadays I don’t use Facebook anymore. The good part of Facebook, sharing something with family or friends that you actually care about, has been replaced by chat apps. The rest is just a drug to keep people scrolling and sell more ads.

Maybe there is hope that tech itself comes with a better solution that is not so bad and makes Facebook irrelevant. It used to be that many things were organized through Facebook groups, forcing you to join the platform if you wanted to be updated. Now I see more such groups migrating to specialized platforms. For example, my children’s sport club use Spond to coordinate training sessions and matches.

Benjamin Evans has his own view on the subject, where he asks if content moderation is a dead end.

I hope that through a combination of regulation, new technology and socially responsible investors ditching their stocks, social media dies as a business.

Last updated: 2021-11-06