On Tuesday, Senator Josh Hawley introduced his second proposed regulation of social media in as many months. In June, he introduced a bill to regulate political speech on large social-media platforms. In July, he followed it up with the “SMART Act,” a bill designed to curb allegedly addictive features contained in popular applications such as Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube.
I fully agree that social-media platforms should reform their speech policies. I also agree that too many Americans spend too much time on their phones. But there is a dramatic difference between declaring that something is a problem and believing that government should act to solve that problem. In fact, the very determination that government should act — rather than relying on a free citizenry to exercise its liberty responsibly — can be harmful to a nation and to a culture.
The SMART Act is a remarkable attempt at micromanaging the design of popular online products. It would ban, for example, “infinite scroll” (the feature that allows you to thumb rapidly through a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feed), the “autoplay” of a new video after the user finishes the one he initially selected (on sites like YouTube, but not on the ultimate autoplay device in American homes, your television), and certain gaming features on social-media apps, such as Snapchat’s “streaks” (which record how many consecutive days you’ve communicated with friends).
Welcome to the Republican Daddy state. It responds to a social challenge with a blunt instrument that hurts responsible users of popular applications — which is to say, the overwhelming majority of all users — while not providing any concrete evidence that it will cure the extraordinarily complicated underlying problem it’s attempting to address: the rise of anxiety, depression, and polarization that correlates with the rise of social media and the smartphone but is caused by a multiplicity of factors.
I’m getting a strange sense of déjà vu. Remember the height of the Clinton administration, when the V-chip was going to help American parents shield their children from the depravity of television? In the years after we saw unconstitutional bans on the sale of violent video games to minors.
Time and again, the theme is the same. Here is this new form of entertainment that some people don’t use responsibly, and so concerned citizens turn to the government and ask, “Can’t you save us from ourselves?”
To be clear, there are contexts where this request is reasonable. There are addictions so dreadful and dangerous that the government should exert its will. In a Tweet thread, a writer I admire — J. D. Vance — claimed that many of the arguments against Hawley’s bill “take an impossibly dumb form.” “Theoretically,” he says, “they could apply to the regulation of almost anything addictive.” He then referenced fentanyl, cocaine, child use of cigarettes, and children gambling.
But his counterexamples are themselves illuminating. Fentanyl can and does snuff out a life immediately. So can cocaine. And even when they don’t, they frequently create dependencies so debilitating that they extinguish a person’s ability to function as an employee, parent, spouse, or even friend. Cigarettes have dramatic, measurable physical health effects — costing tens of thousands of lives annually. The line between cigarettes and lung cancer is far, far more direct than the line between infinite scroll and anxiety, much less suicide. Yet even then, we’ve not banned cigarettes.
As for child gambling? Hawley’s legislation sweeps far beyond financial transactions and applies to children and adults. Under Hawley’s act, not even responsible adults can enjoy the user interface they prefer.
Moreover, let’s not overstate the strength of the present science. While there are undoubtedly studies showing troubling correlations between social-media use, depression, and anxiety, other researchers will say the “literature is a wreck.” The language of addiction is often overused, with people equating using platforms that are “fun, engaging, immersive, and enjoyable” with actions — such as drug use — that have measurably dramatic different effects on the brain.
Also, let’s not overstate the government’s competence at even understanding the true nature of online dysfunction. Youth tech engagement in particular evolves at lightning speed. For many families, incidents on, say, Groupme or Google Docs have been far more challenging to their child’s mental health than anything that’s happened on Instagram or Snapchat. Unless we’re going to staff up Senate offices with insecure middle schoolers, government offices will always lag substantially behind the pace of online change.
If government does decide to help Americans be “reasonable” online, it will play whack-a-mole, reacting constantly to the dizzying new developments in online interaction, creating a labyrinth of red tape all the while.
Finally, there is a corrosive cultural impact to teaching Americans that they can and should rely on government to spring to their aid when their own will and responsibility fails. As a general rule, free citizens should not be shielded from the natural and inevitable consequences of their personal choices. A contrary position erodes liberty into a culture of coddling and indulgence, one that assures citizens that failures are not their fault, that there is always a larger force to blame — and a larger force to appeal to for aid.
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