Study Hacks Blog

Senator Hawley on Social Media: “addiction is actually the point.”

June 28th, 2019 · 20 comments
Photo by Natureofthought.

Early last month, Josh Hawley, the newly-elected senator from Missouri, gave a speech about big tech at the Hoover Institute. He made a couple points that caught my attention, such as when he said this:

“Social media only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we did perfectly well without social media, for the entire known history of the human race with itself. It needs to replace those activities with time spent on social media. So that addiction is actually the point.”

And this:

“This is what some of our brightest minds have been doing with their time for years now. Designing these platforms, designing apps that integrate with them. I mean, what else might they have been doing?”

I was pleased to hear Senator Hawley emphasize these issues of addictiveness and value because they echo the concerns I heard from the vast majority of people I met during the book tour for Digital Minimalism.

It’s important to hear public figures cite these problems, because as I’ve written before, much of the media coverage on the big tech backlash focuses on what I call legal-techno geek issues, such as privacy, data portability, and content moderation.

These are important topics, and if you’re a journalist, or a social media personality, or an academic, or a political think tank type, they can be quite exciting to debate and nuance. They also have the advantage of being addressable by big swing legislative fixes, which are satisfying to imagine. (Indeed, in the recent New Yorker review of Digital Minimalism, the reviewer’s main criticism was that I avoided suggesting such systemic fixes.)

But for the average person — who doesn’t host a YouTube interview show, or cover politics, or publish research papers on network privacy — the legal-techno geek issues are not why they’re uneasy about their devices.

What they really care about is the fact that they’re looking at these glowing screens more than they know is useful or healthy, and to the exclusion of things that are more important. They care that their relationship with services like social media and streaming videos is leeching quality from their life.

So I think Senator Hawley got this right in his Hoover Institute speech. Which is why I was somewhat resigned to learn that just yesterday he introduced a piece of legislation that fell back into core techno-legal geek topics (in this case, regulating content moderation policies).

The listless and anxious 25-year-old, compulsively swiping and tapping his smartphone, bleeding away life force with each steam whistle tweet or Instagram artifice, won’t be helped if Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is repealed. But if this same 25-year-old learns exactly how his devices have been sapping his natural drive, and is shown what he might do about it, he will have a real shot at serious improvement.

We need more focus on what Senator Hawley talked about last month at the Hoover Institute, and probably a little less focus on the types of issues he’s now attempting to legislate. It’s not that the latter are meaningless, it’s just that fixing them won’t by itself provide meaning to those lost in their screens.


My long-time friend Scott Young has a new book coming out in August called Ultralearning. I’ve been talking with Scott about this book since it was still just an inkling of an idea, and I couldn’t be more excited about the way it turned out. I’ll provide a real review when it’s launched, in the meantime, however, if you’re thinking about it buying it, consider doing so early to reap the pre-order rewards Scott is offering (which include an interview with yours truly).

20 thoughts on “Senator Hawley on Social Media: “addiction is actually the point.”

  1. Mark G says:

    The same situation has been with us since we invited electronic entertainment into our homes. The listless 25-year-old won’t be _truly_ helped by any legislation – period. Like you said, when he comes to his senses then real change will happen.

    1. Carl says:

      I think I grew up strangely. –Little to no electronic entertainment or TV watching.

      I believe the lack of influence from screen time altered my upbringing–positively and irrevocably.

      Early on I could see I didn’t conform to other kids in many ways. I had ideas about things that didn’t seem to be part of a shared social norm. I attribute this largely to being devoid of screen time.

      Now admittedly I haven’t shared notes with others who had an upbringing similar to mine, but this is what I intuitively feel.

      1. Michelle M says:

        So curious to know in what way? Can you share some examples?

  2. Andy says:

    I think Senator Hawley is right on both points.

    His first point is that social media platforms are no different than cigarettes. The reason Philip Morris was a super dividend stock for years was that their cash flow was guaranteed. Their customers were literally addicted. So are Twitter’s and Facebook’s. It’s scary.

    The second point he made was only tangentially related to the first. The principal social media platforms have a platform vs. publisher problem. They chose which one they are based on convenience. If they are a platform, they should not block/demonetize Stephen Crowder for making mediocre comedy. If they are a publisher, then they are liable for actions originating through their website, and can be sued (i.e. Covington Catholic).

    Both problems are legitimate. Kudos to Senator Hawley.

  3. Something very valuable the West can learn from India: the directional relativity of values. Values are useless unless they are relevant to human needs. Not a question of pipe-puffing contemplation, but real-world stuff. The East a very long time ago discovered that what all people are seeking is increased happiness and freedom from suffering. The point is to seek those things at your own level, and not to grasp for something higher until you’re darned good and ready. What are you going to do with all those glowey-faced zombies? Take their toys away? People don’t do anything until with ready, with a sure INNER KNOWING, that there’s something better that they want. So essentially social critiques really don’t work but inspiring alternatives can be offered for when people are eventually ready.

    1. Stella says:

      Why would you compare the west from India? It’s an overpopulated country full of maniacs and rude grammar nazis. Ever wonder why most of them use social media and dating sites? Because they’re not goody goody people they seem to be.
      If you live in a 1st world- just observe your Indian coworker and let me know if he or she’s a good example?!

      1. Vruta says:

        Indians use social media for the same purposes Westerners do. Please don’t generalize an entire country of people (especially considering you seem to read rather nuanced pieces of argument!).

  4. Yes, and any technology can be used expansively or contractively. Expansion makes happy, contraction doesn’t.

  5. David Press says:


    This is interesting news–news I wasn’t aware of–but I guess my question is how do you legislate the addiction side of social media? Sure, one could argue–as you do in your book–that this addiction is as debilitating as cigarettes or other physical and mind altering drugs, but it’s a little harder to prove then when there aren’t the stats for cigarettes that are actual poison being put into lungs. But I’ve always thought that you have to take care of your mental health as much as your physical health and this affects one’s mental health and that, obviously, affects physical health as well. Mental health issues have always been difficult to legislate, so I was wondering if you had any ideas on legislation.

    1. Islam El-Rougy says:

      I’d love to know his ideas on this topic too.

    2. Briar Harvey says:

      This is exactly the issue. It’s about our appalling lack of access to real mental health care resources, especially for the poor and uninsured. Mental health care for people with GREAT insurance is still often difficult to come by, with wait times stretching out for months in some areas for an initial assessment.

      If we are saying that social media is an addiction, then we have to treat it as such, and that means better and more accessible mental health care. That’s still a conversation we struggle with in this country. We’ve ostensibly lost every war on addiction we’ve fought, and I don’t feel any better about how this one is going.

    3. Study Hacks says:

      It’s an interesting question. There’s a good parallel to cigarettes. Ultimately, what was effective was changing the culture so that it became much less acceptable to smoke, and people saw it as wildly unhealthy.

      Increasing funding in mental health resources is a good idea generally speaking. But much like increasing funding to treat lung cancer better for cigarette patients, it’s not the ultimate solution to the issue, instead a treatment of the problems it causes.

      The good news about social media, however, is that its grip on our culture is much more tenuous than many suspect. When people experiment with time away from these services they tend to shrug their shoulders and not miss it much (which is quite different from smoking).

      I suspect as the culture on this shifts, the massive, publicly funded, “free” services mining our attention and making us miserable will reduce in significance, while other alternative services for harnessing the power of the internet to connect, express, and encounter interesting ideas will rise in their place.

      Part of what will fuel this shift is people become fed up with their relationship with these current massive platforms. Another part is our evolution of engagement, which is shifting past the need to interact with people we know and toward interacting with interesting people/ideas. This latter engagement doesn’t require nearly the same scale of network effects, enabling a much more vibrant marketplace of service offerings…

      1. Clint says:

        I appreciate that you didn’t include legislation in your solution to the problem. I believe that laws/regulations are often viewed as an expedient way to solve a problem when often it’s the reverse. Historically, legislation has created market distortions or massive debt with no dramatic improvement in the problem that it was supposed to address.

        I also believe the culture shift toward better utilization of technology is going to take longer than we might like. Moving away from tobacco has been a steady decline since 1965 from 42% to 15% in the United States, but that still represents a 55-year journey. I imagine the social media decline will look similar, possibly as the best-case scenario considering the negative impacts are harder to quantify.

    4. Nate says:

      You can definitely argue that it is a health concern. Childhood obesity is at an all time high. Birth rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in Western countries. People are getting less sleep. Individuals have less drive, which in turn affects them physically. Since social media platforms provide endless ‘health’ advice by people who aren’t licensed to provide that advice in a logical sense and people are following it that is a huge issue (think of all the bogus fitness pages, supplements pages, weight loss pages, diet pages…made by people with little to no real world experience). Also digital device usage has become the NUMBER ONE preventable cause of driving accidents…so if that isn’t a physical concern what is?

  6. Scott says:

    Again ,(like we needed) more proof that Social media is the great sedater of creativity and original thinking- a massive addiction.
    I honestly believe this 24/7 distraction is not sustainable, this swiping, head down life of today.
    I just hope I live long enough to see the other side of it.
    Till then , I will celebrate “JOMO”..the Joy of missing out, and being here- now.
    Im the phone Luddite who observes the “LOL circus” of “connection” others say I need.

    Thanks Cal

  7. Website says:

    I think Social media have pros as well as cons too. It is good to stay in touch with people and you can create a better world of friends for yourself, but there are some negatives also, sometimes you got addicted of it and you have to use it does not matter nothing is going there.

    1. Stella says:

      Girl, you do not make sense at all.

  8. Eporto says:

    Yes his concerns over this social media addiction is correct i mean youth these days are mostly getting stuck in online world and forgetting what;s outside,yes social media is also important in some aspects but keep it to minimum. All of us are getting nore concern about our social life and completely ignoring our personal life.

  9. Interesting :

    “Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak says you should get off Facebook because ‘there’s almost no way to stop’ companies from spying on your habits”

  10. Omggamer says:

    It’s an interesting question. There’s a good parallel to cigarettes. Ultimately, what was effective was changing the culture so that it became much less acceptable to smoke, and people saw it as wildly unhealthy.

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