Big Tech Needs to Make Our Mental Health a Priority

The internet in the time of pandemics is a double-edged sword. It brings us together in ways that were impossible during earlier outbreaks, and it gives us the ability to cause severe anxiety in one another. It’s easy to be glued to our screens waiting on bated breath for the next update because the idea of things being out of control is hard, and we, humans, are notoriously terrible at being out of control.

During these uncertain times where our doors are shut, we physically distance ourselves and yet are more social than ever, it’s important to remember the duality of online platforms. Seated in front of screens for most the day and night for the foreseeable future, it’s time we recognize the need to mitigate their effect on us.

A couple of years ago, I worked on an iOS app to help people overcome their behavioral addictions, and I took a deep dive into persuasive technology and dark patterns in UX that platforms like Facebook and Twitter use. I knew then we’d need more than just motivation to curb our widespread addiction to screens, and now as we make the internet our home more than ever before, it’s time to call attention to the places where it negatively impacts our mental health.

What’s the Problem with Screen Time?

Put someone with a gambling disorder in front of a blackjack table and see how long it takes them to buy some chips. Put someone with an eating disorder in front of a buffet and see how long it takes them to grab a plate. Put someone with internet addiction in front of a phone and see how long it takes them to check something. As of today, gambling and eating disorder is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and yet, millions suffer from internet addiction.

Big Tech got where they are by building great products designed to serve real user needs. However, to monetize, they’ve created a business model based on getting and keeping your attention. To drive your engagement, they’ve done blatantly unethical things. Namely, they’ve used psychology and gamification to hook people into launching, scrolling, and interacting on their platforms.

Big Tech wants to give the illusion that we can, if we take some precautions, mediate our own screen time.

The Big Lie of Big Tech

Big Tech wants to give the illusion that we can, if we take some precautions, mediate our own screen time. They want us to believe that we can decipher which ads and news are real or fake.

Instead, they are deciding, based on the products’ evolution, how much time we spend and continue to spend on their platforms. They are defining what meaningful connections are and what friendship means - they are standardizing socially acceptable expression. And by virtue of their algorithms are intentionally reinforcing ideology, partisanship, and radical thinking.

We’ve come to a point where we need to start thinking of Big Tech like Big Tobacco or Big Ag. It is an industry that has tried and failed to regulate itself effectively. Big Tech is causing significant harm while externalizing the costs and privatizing the profits of that impact. There are lessons and models from our history and battle against Big Tobacco that can help us directionally on the road ahead of us.

Regulating Big Tobacco Took Thirty Years

It took nearly thirty years after we knew tobacco-caused cancer to add a Surgeon General’s warning to cigarette packaging. If we knew then what we know now, we might have avoided some of the trappings of our thinking that slowed down legislative action from 1935 to 1965.

Today, we have a similar problem on our hands regarding addictive and destructive technologies, their omnipresence in our lives, and some knowledge of the repercussions they could have on us.

When Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, says, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he’s right on the nose about this precarious point in history. We don’t know what our life on screens is doing yet.

Lung cancer got out of hand before we did anything about it

Since the 1930s, the incidence of lung cancer in the United States rose dramatically and became the leading cause of cancer deaths in the 1950s. While that rise spurred research, the cause was not clear. Though tobacco was implicated, it was one of a laundry list of problems that included automobile exhaust, industrial pollution, smoke from domestic fires, influenza, and tuberculosis.

Even then, with a rate of lung cancer increasing rapidly over two decades from 9.7% to 31.1% per thousand people in Connecticut, criticism over the validity of this and other studies continued to muddy credible data by casting doubt that other societal factors were at work.

What will technology’s “cancer” turn out to be?

Technology is causing a kind of neurological damage whose extent we do not fully understand. Even though people don’t use technology in the same way or for the same reasons, and the psychological and developmental consequences vary widely, the research and studies emerging are an indictment of these companies’ draconian practices.

And while researchers make assertions based on limited data sets, Big Tech experiments with an entire generation who absorb its detrimental effects. Some research points to social media and its adverse effects on our mental health.

The 1950s, AKA ‘when it was cool to smoke.’

Icons like Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn were lighting up cigarettes in every scene; I Love Lucy debuted on TV as a vehicle for Philip Morris.
Near the end of the decade, over half the population of industrialized nations smoked. Cigarettes were cheap, accessible, legal, and socially acceptable.

Near the end of the decade, over half the population of industrialized nations smoked. Cigarettes were cheap, accessible, legal, and socially acceptable.

The 2010s AKA ‘when it was cool to use these platforms’

If smoking was popular in celebrity culture, then what’s happening today on social media is exponentially more inclusive  — almost every important public figure has an account across the most popular social media platforms.

Big Tech’s products are an entrenched part of how we live, are free to use, accessible anytime, and come with no warnings.

The Surgeon General’s warning in 1957 and the seminal 1964 report

In 1957 Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney linked smoking and lung cancer, but it took until 1965 for warning labels to be added to the packaging. At that time, 400 billion cigarettes were smoked each year, and Burney himself was a customer.

Even so, the landmark report in 1964 on the dangers of secondhand smoke and nicotine’s addictive properties was what turned the tide.

Big Tech’s Surgeon General Moment

There’s a growing list of people who once advocated for big tech and are now sounding the alarm. 

Facebook’s former Vice President of User Growth famously admitted his complicity in creating addictive technologies saying, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”

He’s not alone, people like Sherry Turkle, who once spoke in favor of the coming tech revolution during the 90s, to Tristan Harris, who once held a position at Google as a design ethicist. And on a personal note, I worked on an anti-addiction iOS app called Onward, where our team combatted tech addiction.

Big Tobacco fought scientific findings and public opinion

These companies, with their big pockets and army of lobbyists, saw public opinion shifting and fought back against it. They hired public relations firms and challenged the evidence mounting against them head-on. This PR and lobbying campaign would carry on for 40 years and be explicitly developed to elicit doubt on the subject of whether smoking caused harm.

Big Tech is learning to fight back too

Big tech, like Big Tobacco, has ramped up its lobbying arm to defend its interest in preserving an unregulated internet. Vilification and indictment of Big Tech’s platform with legislative action and antitrust suits will result in a predictable response: they’ll use their power and money in Washington to affect policy. Similar to its predecessors, it hopes to “self-regulate” and has offered some concessions as an olive branch.

At the outset of 2018, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, recognized a need to shift the narrative in his company. He co-opted the concept of “Time Well Spent” from Tristan Harris’s campaign and chose to focus on “meaningful interactions.” To Zuckerberg, the idea of “time well spent” means reporting on independent research to prove that people value their time on Facebook. However, to Harris, the problem is much more complex and requires removing or updating negative interactions on the platform, such as likes, comments, and shares. These are changes that would fundamentally reshape the way we interact with social media, and ultimately, the most painful to change as they drive site engagement. Zuckerberg’s actions since then have felt as empty and vague as his original statement.

These are changes that would fundamentally reshape the way we interact with social media, and ultimately, the most painful to change as they drive site engagement.

To be fair, Mark still has to face a board whose concept of success is traditional growth KPIs. Whatever goodwill he hoped to achieve by noting his pivot to “Time Well Spent” has ultimately been squandered by relentlessly pursuing growing his business, which he must do to keep shareholders happy.

Smoking behaviors changed in the U.S. for 50 years

Only regulation can mitigate the risk and damage of profit-generating companies whose stated social purpose and mission conflict with their business model. This was true for tobacco and it’s true for tech.

It’s startling to see the decrease in smokers over the last fifty years. In 1965, 42% of adults in the United States smoked, and by 2011, it was less than 20% of the population.

External forces played the primary role in changing the world: warning labels, federal taxes, smoking bans, workplace restrictions, and scientists united on the dangers of smoking.

Sure, it took a while to get there. We had to effect change at the federal level and perceptions around tobacco societally:

  • In 1966, the United States became the first nation in the world to require a health warning on cigarette packages.
  • By 1970 doctors and scientists were in relative agreement about the hazards smoking posed.
  • From 1965 to 2011, federal taxes on cigarettes increased from 8¢ to $1.01.
  • In 1986 workplace smoking bans protected 3% of workers; by 1999, that percentage grew to 70%.
  • In 1995 California enacted the first statewide smoking ban, and today, 82% of the U.S. population lives under a ban on smoking in workplaces, restaurants, and bars.

We should add a Surgeon General’s Warning on Big Tech’s websites and apps.

One of the first steps we took to instigate fifty years of change in the tobacco industry was adding a warning label, and we can do the same with Big Tech.
Many people make the point that smartphones are addictive, and using them isn’t unlike getting hooked on smoking.

We are at the start of a lengthy discourse on the adverse outcomes associated with the apps we use every day, but there is enough evidence to add a warning when individuals log in or create a new account on specific sites and apps.

Why not take aim at social media first?

The U.S. Is Behind Other Countries When it Comes to Warning Labels on Cigarettes

When it comes to tobacco, the United States is behind other countries that have demanded cigarette packs have more stringent packaging guidelines.

In Australia, for example, the messaging is more prominent on the front, side, and even the back of each package. They demanded health warning imagery be added to packages in 2006, and after 2012 mandated that 75% of the pack’s front and 90% of its back be covered with warning labels. They also passed plain packaging regulation that required they be sold in dull brown packaging with no logos or branding.

Cigarette Box

Photograph by
Newtown Grafitti

Europe is Ahead of the Pack When it Comes to Regulating Big Tech

With over 200 new policy proposals in 2019, Europe has led the pack when it comes to regulating technology. In 2018, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was a historical one that forced thousands of companies to change and gave individual users more control of their data.

Countries that deliver on new policies and regulations first can influence and educate international bodies. If the United States mandates changes to platforms like Facebook and Twitter that reach billions of people, it will become a global leader in setting the rules around governing these kinds of corporate monoliths.

Our First Social Media Surgeon General’s Warning

The first warning labels on cigarettes were simple and lowest common denominator, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” With further evidence, and over time, this changed. But regardless of its simplicity, it helped.

We know from evidence-based research that social media is the cause of mental health issues. As we grow that body of work, we can become more nuanced with our wording, but for now, simply adding “Caution: Social Media May Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health,” is a good start for sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Warning Labels for Big Tobacco and Big Tech

It took Congress four more years to pass the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act and issue the more aggressive label, “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health.”

In 1984 more alarming warnings were added to the rotation:

  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.
  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking by Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, and Low Birth Weight.

Social media warnings, with more evidence, could add these labels into the rotation:

  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Social media causes impaired brain function, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Quitting social media significantly reduces severe risks of misinformation and radicalization.

What if the United States could lead the charge on regulating Big Tech?

Whistleblowers, reporters, and the public have played an outsized role in pressuring Big Tech to change, and now it’s up to Congress to deliver on legislation that takes them on.

Let’s start small, with a warning label. And, over time, a growing body of evidence will require these corporate giants to evolve further. Think about where we were and where we’ve come to with smoking regulations - if we act sooner than later on Big Tech, we will mitigate decades of damage by responding to this threat promptly and effectively.

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