For years, I sat down to work each morning, realizing hours later that I felt drained, but got little done. Instead of writing, I spent my time texting, emailing, and mostly aimlessly browsing through news sites, blogs, and social networks. Every click triggered another. I tried to regain control by using an app called Freedom that blocked my computer online access for fixed periods of time. Sometimes it helped, especially when I had a work deadline looming. Sometimes it didn’t. But trying to control work time was only part of the struggle. I kept feeling the irresistible urge to pull out my phone wherever I went. At that point, I blamed myself. After all, I was the girl who spent hours playing video games well into college. But something happened in 2015 that made me realize that something much bigger was awry.
It was a Saturday evening when I arrived with my family to a friends’ home for dinner. Their 11-year-old son was playing with his parents’ iPad. When we came in, his parents demanded that he hand it over and join the other kids. The boy at first refused to hand it over. He then tried angrily to snatch it back from his mother, regressing to toddler-style wailing to demand the device. Throughout a long evening he exercised every manipulation tool in his power to regain control of the iPad. As I observed his parents’ despair, I recalled a family conflict that transpired at my parents’ house some years earlier. At that time doctors diagnosed my father, a heavy smoker, with emphysema. My father could have avoided his painful ﬁnal years, hooked to an oxygen tank, by quitting smoking when he was diagnosed. He refused. We desperately tried to resist his decision by taking his cigarettes away. But like my friends’ son, my father reacted with uncharacteristic anger, exercising every means at his disposal to get his cigarette pack back.
That day I began to see how our present relates to our past. The past can answer one of today’s most perplexing problems. Why, despite multiple reports from Silicon Valley whistleblowers revealing that technology companies are using manipulative designs to prolong our time online, do we feel personally responsible? Why do we still blame ourselves and keep seeking new self-help methods to decrease our time online? We can learn from the past because in this case the tech companies did not innovate. Instead, the technology industry manipulated us following an old playbook, put together by other powerful industries, including the tobacco and food industries.
When the tobacco and food industries confronted allegations that their products harmed their consumers, they defended themselves by raising the powerful American social icon of self-choice and personal responsibility. This meant emphasizing that consumers are free to make choices and, as a result, are responsible for the outcomes. Smokers and their families sued the tobacco industry for the devastation of smoking, including lung cancer and early death. But, for decades, they failed to win their lawsuits because the tobacco industry argued successfully that they chose to smoke and, therefore, they are responsible for the results. The food industry employed an identical strategy. When a group of teenagers sued McDonald’s because they suffered from obesity and diabetes after eating regularly at McDonald’s, McDonald’s also successfully raised the same claim. It argued that no one forced the teenagers to eat at McDonald’s, and since it was their choice, McDonald’s is not responsible for any health ramifications. The food industry went further. They successfully lobbied for laws known as the “cheeseburger laws” or more formally as the Commonsense Consumption Acts. Under these laws, food manufacturers and vendors cannot be held legally responsible for their consumers’ obesity. Why? Because the laws proclaim that this will foster a culture of consumer personal responsibility, which is important for promoting a healthy society.
The tobacco and food companies did not stop at just arguing directly that their consumers are responsible. They also provided new products to help them make better choices. In the 1950s, researchers published the first studies showing the connection between smoking and lung cancer. In response, the tobacco companies offered consumers the option to choose a new healthier product: the filtered cigarette. They advertised it as “just what the doctor ordered,” claiming it removed nicotine and tar. Smokers went for it. Yet, they did not know that to compensate for the taste robbed by the filtered cigarette, companies used stronger tobacco that yielded as much nicotine and tar as the unfiltered brands. Here as well, the food industry followed suit. It also offered tools to reinforce that its consumers are in control. Facing criticism of the low nutritional value of their products, food manufacturers added products called “Eating Right” and “Healthy Choice.” While giving consumers the illusion they were making better choices, the diet product lines often made little improvement over the original products.
The tech industry is already applying this strategy by appealing to our deeply ingrained cultural beliefs of personal choice and responsibility. Tech companies do this directly when faced with allegations that they are addicting users. When the US Federal Trade Commission evaluated restricting use of loot boxes, an addictive feature common in video games, video game manufacturers argued: “No one is forced to spend money on a video game that is free to play. They choose what they want to spend and when they want to spend it and how they want to spend it.” But the technology industry also does it indirectly by providing us with tools to enhance our illusion of control. They give us tools like Apple’s Screen Time, which notifies us how much time we spend on screens. They also allow us to restrict time on certain apps, but then we can override these restrictions. We can choose to set our phones on “do not disturb” or “focus times.” We can set Instagram to remind us to take breaks. Yet, screen time continues to creep up. These tools are not successful, because just like the “filtered cigarette” and the “healthy choice” food products, they are not meant to solve the problem. Tech companies did not eliminate the addictive designs that keep prolonging our time online. The goal of these products, also known as digital well-being tools, was to keep the blame ball in our court, as we unsuccessfully face devices and apps that manipulatively entice us to stay on.