For years I have sat down to work each morning, realizing hours later that I felt drained, but hadn’t done much. Instead of writing, I spent my time texting, emailing, and mostly browsing aimlessly on news sites, blogs, and social media. Each click triggered another. I tried to regain control using an app called Freedom that blocked my computer’s online access for fixed periods of time. Sometimes that helped, especially when I had a work deadline looming. Sometimes not. But trying to control work time was only part of the struggle. I kept feeling the urge to pull out my phone everywhere I went. At that point, I blamed myself. After all, I was the girl who spent hours playing video games until college. But something happened in 2015 that made me realize something much bigger was wrong.
It was a Saturday night when I arrived with my family at a friends house for dinner. Their 11-year-old son was playing with his parents’ iPad. When we entered, his parents demanded that he hand him over to them and join the other children. The boy initially refused to hand it over. He then angrily tried to take it back from his mother, regressing to toddler-style moans for demanding the device. Throughout a long evening, he wielded every manipulative tool in his power to regain control of the iPad. As I watched her parents’ despair, I remembered a family conflict that had occurred in my parents’ house a few years earlier. At that time, doctors diagnosed my father, a heavy smoker, with emphysema. My father could have avoided his painful last years, addicted to an oxygen cylinder, by quitting smoking at the time of the diagnosis. He refused. We desperately tried to resist his decision by taking away his cigarettes. But like my friend’s son, my father reacted with unusual anger, using every means at his disposal to retrieve his pack of cigarettes.
That day I began to see how our present relates to our past. The past can answer one of today’s most complex problems. Why, despite several reports Silicon Valley whistleblowers revealing that tech companies are using manipulative designs to prolong our time online, do we feel personally responsible? Why do we still blame ourselves and keep looking for new self-help methods to reduce our time online? We can learn from the past because in this case, technology companies did not innovate. Instead, the tech industry has manipulated us into following an old playbook, set by other powerful industries, including the tobacco and food industries.
When the tobacco and food industries faced allegations that their products harmed their consumers, they fought back by brandishing the powerful American social icon of self-choice and personal responsibility. This meant emphasizing that consumers are free to make choices and, therefore, are responsible for outcomes. Smokers and their families have sued the tobacco industry for the ravages of smoking, including lung cancer and premature death. But, for decades, they failed to win their cases because the tobacco industry successfully argued that they had chosen to smoke and, therefore, they are responsible for the results. The food industry has employed a similar 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 allegation. He argued that no one forced the teenagers to eat at McDonald’s and that since it was their choice, McDonald’s was not responsible for the health ramifications. The food industry has gone further. They successfully lobbied for laws known as the “Cheeseburger Laws” or more formally as the Commonsense Consumption Acts. Under these laws, manufacturers and sellers of food products cannot be held legally responsible for the obesity of their consumers. For what? Because the laws proclaim that it will foster a culture of personal consumer responsibility, which is important for promoting a healthy society.
Tobacco and food companies have not just directly asserted 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 link between smoking and lung cancer. In response, tobacco companies offered consumers the option of choosing a new, healthier product: the filter cigarette. They advertised it as “just what the doctor ordered”, claiming it removed nicotine and tar. Smokers went there. Little did they know, however, that to compensate for the taste stolen by filtered cigarettes, companies used stronger tobacco that produced as much nicotine and tar as unfiltered brands. Here, too, the food industry has followed suit. It also offered tools to strengthen the control of its consumers. Faced with criticism of the low nutritional value of their products, food manufacturers added products called “Eating Well” and “Healthy Choice”. While giving consumers the illusion that they were making better choices, health product lines often provided little improvement over the original products.
The tech industry is already applying this strategy by appealing to our deeply rooted cultural beliefs of personal choice and responsibility. Tech companies do this directly when faced with allegations that they are making users addicted. When the U.S. Federal Trade Commission assessed the restriction on the use of loot boxes, a common addictive feature in video games, video game makers argued: “No one is forced to spend money on a free video game. They choose what they want to spend, 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 reinforce our illusion of control. They give us tools like Apple’s Screen Time, which informs us of the time we spend on screens. They also allow us to restrict time on certain apps, but we can then override those restrictions. We can choose to set our phones to “do not disturb” or “focus hours. We can set Instagram to remind us to take breaks. Yet screen time continues to drop. These tools are not successful because, like the “filtered cigarette” and “healthy choice” food products, they are not intended to solve the problem. s eliminated addictive designs that prolong our online time. The purpose of these products, also called digital wellbeing tools, was to keep the ball of blame in our court, as we unsuccessfully battle devices and apps that manipulatively entice us to stay.