Changing the Lens

Staffer discusses how solutions to social media addiction should revolve around fixing rather than not using technology

Can’t put down the phone? – NBC.  Digital addiction is a real threat to kids – New York Times.  Treat your phone like a bad relationship. Break up – CNN.  Every time you open up your news feed, your phone flashes with graphics and bold titles attacking technology, drawing you in. As you read, your frown becomes pronounced, and you look at your phone, wondering “is it time to put the screen away?” 

It is undoubtedly true that social media has caused significant mental health issues, particularly in teens. According to a study conducted by Current Psychology, 25 percent of adolescents are addicted to social media. And this addiction is by design; according to Tristan Harris, co-founder of Center For Humane Technology, social media companies’ put much of their efforts into improving algorithms that “hack” into teen psychology, incentivizing teenagers to spend as much time as possible on the platform. This is achieved through methods such as tailoring content, instant gratification and infinite scrolling. 

Yet when it comes to the solutions to this issue, the focus in the media and in the Stevenson community is on putting our devices away for as long as possible. I believe that attempting to limit social media addiction by waging a war on device usage as a whole is not only potentially harmful given the benefits of technology, but also unrealistic in the world we live in. 

Social media addiction is a serious concern, but we must be considerate in what solutions we are promoting and whether they truly help the issue. I believe that focusing on more humane social media design through legislation and lawsuits is the right way to deal with technology addiction. By taking action against companies like Meta, Snapchat and TikTok, the many benefits of technology would stay in place while simultaneously combating widespread addiction.

At its root, simply calling to remove ourselves from our devices is far from realistic—technology has become an irreplaceable part of modern life. As members of the younger generation, we often don’t realize what a world without portable phones would be like, and we take instant communication for granted. Without this technology, collaboration across nations would be close to impossible, and interacting with friends would be primarily limited to in-person conversations. Given the overwhelming use of devices for communication, I find it hard to believe that even those advocating for a strict technology detox are genuinely free from their devices.  

Technology is at the forefront of accessibility in learning too—the massive open online course, an internet-based, widely accessible class, has provided a lower cost educational experience to students of all ages, with over 110 million people participating in 2022. Online databases such as Project Gutenberg provide free access to millions of books and documents for those without access to libraries. Additionally, through these advantages, people with disabilities now have greater access to education. According to Penn Today, technologies such as size changing features, text-to-speech capabilities and braille translators dramatically improve the ease at which people with visual or auditory disabilities can learn. For those who need these devices to learn, removing technology from their lives would cause significant difficulty, and asking them to do so is insensitive.

When all of these technologies are integrated into a classroom setting, the impacts are multiplied. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, students who use internet-connected devices in the classroom score a full grade above students who do not use these devices on the Program for International Students Assessment. Schools with access to technology can provide multimedia learning resources, collaboration with peers, personalized learning plans and efficiency by automating tasks for teachers. These tools directly result in a boost in learning for students, and removing them is increasingly difficult for most schools who rely on technology to function.

I agree that Stevenson needs to make technology more restrictive in order to unlock the full potential of these devices: the usage of video games such as Game Pigeon in class makes this very clear. However, calls for a “technology detox” in schools fail to recognize the many advantages these resources provide. The first cars were not immediately banned due to crashes; they were modified and improved so that their benefits to transportation could be realized. Likewise, asking people to “put away their phones” is counterproductive, since this is essentially telling them to isolate themselves from society. 

Devices have provided numerous benefits to society, most of which go unrecognized simply because they are such integral parts of life. Social media addiction is a serious drawback to the modern world, but the promotion of a complete withdrawal from devices has the potential to do more harm than good.

The root of the technology addiction issue lies in the social media companies and the business model that depends on addiction, and the solution lies in regulating this industry. Some activist groups have already been taking the right path and are fighting against deliberately-addictive algorithms. This January, plaintiffs in hundreds of cases were consolidated into one federal case that argues that social media giants should be held responsible for “creating a youth mental health crisis,” as Axios reported.

We may not be able to dictate how society uses technology, but we can collectively decide to prevent social media companies from taking advantage of the technology that has created so many benefits for the world. Organizations such as the Center for Humane Technology and the Social Media Victims Law Center are pushing against addiction by specifically attacking social media companies. And just like for issues like drug addiction, students can participate in lobbying to push forward legislation against these companies.

The concept that people can “force” themselves to unplug perpetuates the idea that social media is different from other addictive substances. Just like any addiction, the solution is not telling people to “just quit.”  By working together to push for regulation and safer more humane algorithms, we can collectively reduce the core problem behind social media addiction, and create a safer world where the benefits of technology can be realized.