GUEST ESSAY: Dear America, Facebook is an addictive digital drug of little productive value

By Sen. Josh Hawley

Social media consumers are getting wise to the joke that when the product is free, they’re the ones being sold. But despite the growing threat of consumer exploitation, Washington still shrinks from confronting our social media giants.

Why? Because the social giants have convinced the chattering class that America simply can’t do without them. Confront the industry, we’re told, and you might accidentally kill it ? and with it, all the innovation it has (supposedly) brought to our society.

Related: The cost of being complacent about privacy.

Maybe. But maybe social media’s innovations do our country more harm than good. Maybe social media is best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society.

Maybe we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared. Ask the social giants what it is that they produce for America and you’ll hear grand statements about new forms of human interaction. But ask where their money comes from and you’ll get the real truth.

Advertising is what the social giants truly care about, and for an obvious reason. It’s how they turn a profit. And when it comes to making money, they’ve been great innovators. They’ve designed platforms that extract massive amounts of personal data without telling consumers, then sell that data without consumers’ permission.

And in order to guarantee an audience big enough to make their ads profitable, big tech has developed a business model designed to do one thing above all: addict.


Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? they devote massive amounts of money and the best years of some of the nation’s brightest minds to developing new schemes to hijack their users’ neural circuitry. That’s because social media only works ? to make money, anyway? if it consumes users’ time and attention, day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we enjoyed and did perfectly well before social media existed.

Facebook is a drug that hurts its users. Social media users understand this intuitively. You don’t go on Facebook to connect with a friend when you can just as easily call him or send her a text on your phone.

You don’t log on to find an article you’ve been meaning to read when you could just as easily find it yourself with a different service designed for that purpose, like online search. No, you log on to Facebook to be on Facebook. Just for a minute. Or maybe a few. Or maybe an hour.

Let’s be clear. This is a digital drug. And the addiction is the point. Addiction is what Mark Zuckerberg is selling. Like other drugs, this one hurts its users. Attention spans dull. Tempers quicken. Relationships fray.

And those are the benign effects. The Journal of Pediatrics recently noted a surge in attempted suicide: more than double the attempts over the last decade for those under 19, with a tripling among girls and young women 10 to 24. The study’s authors can’t prove social media is to blame, but they strongly suspect it plays a critical role. Congress has a duty to investigate that potential link further.

Social media waste our time and resources. For all social media’s supposed wizardry “connecting” us to content and to each other, we’re not a more literate or more social nation thanks to social media. We are not a happier or a kinder one. We are, in fact, more impoverished, lonely, and despairing.

As for what social media adds to our economy, consider this: high salaries and stock options have encouraged a generation of our brightest engineers to enter a field of little productive value. This is, to put it mildly, an opportunity missed for the nation.

What marvels might these bright minds have produced had they been oriented toward the common good? What new treatments or therapies or technologies to strengthen our people might they have discovered?

Instead, they’ve given us an addiction economy. They can do better. We can do better. And we must.

(Editor’s note: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) sent this to USA TODAY as a letter to the editor. His press office sent LW a copy, and it is also featured on his website.)


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