This past summer, Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, introduced the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act, which—beyond its forced acronym—was remarkable for how aggressively it would regulate the design of certain tech products.
Among other provisions, the law would ban auto-play videos on sites such as YouTube. It would require sites such as Twitter to deploy a mechanism that “automatically limits the amount of time that a user may spend to 30 minutes a day.” It prohibits sites such as Pinterest from automatically revealing content when the user scrolls to the bottom of the page, instead “requiring the user to specifically request … that additional content be loaded and displayed.” The SMART Act would do all this, according to its preamble, to protect unsuspecting people from “practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice.”
Americans have heard this kind of infantilizing rhetoric before. In 1938, the film Reefer Madness attempted to frighten teenagers into submission. Lured in by drug pushers, high-school-age characters smoked weed, lost their sanity, and committed unspeakable crimes. Reefer Madness became a cult classic for reasons that its creators never intended. Its salacious portrayal of zombified youths wreaking havoc did not conform to most people’s real-life experience, and viewers saw through the filmmakers’ agenda of stoking fear rather than providing insight.