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Many of my friends spend hours and hours mindlessly scrolling on TikTok and Instagram each day. They benefit very little from this, if at all, and it saps big chunks from their day. I've been there too... minutes turn into hours and suddenly you're looking at 3 hours of Instagram on your screentime. It's addictive, and people can't seem to help themselves.

Should social medias hold some moral responsibility for this? They profit from the hours of lost time people spend on their apps each day. Furthermore, they design their algorithms and interfaces to be as addictive as possible.

I'd appreciate if anyone knows of any papers on the subject to refer me to. Thanks!

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    I used to read a lot. All those hours mindlessly spent in the library...
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 21 at 20:08
  • How are these unethical in a society whose only (common) ethics is the maximization of (individual, includes corporate) profit? -- That said, there is a lot of literature, I'd say especially across the 60's and 70's, about the role and function and structure of "mass media" in particular: I find your question too vague/open in that sense. Apr 25 at 10:33
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    It would take a research finding that demonstrates that for some people in some circumstances, there are things that are compulsive in a similar enough way as nicotine and alcohol are. But cigarettes and alcohol are legal. So it still falls to each person to deal with their own problems. Scary warning labels on cigarette packages accomplished nothing as far as I know, and even making alcohol illegal made the problem worse. You could try some kind of reverse over-exposure therapy. Or, make your friends lives more interesting. It worked for rats...
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 10:49
  • @ScottRowe Are they ineffective? Searched for it and lots of countries report positive results of scared teenagers and smokers being at least better informed about their health risk. Also big tobacco is fighting any FDA regulation to implement that in the U.S. . And while my initial reaction to the better informed was something like "where is that rock that people have slept under", apparently tobacco companies are still successful marketing "light" cigarettes with the implicit assumption that they are healthier, which they aren't. So lack of information is still a thing.
    – haxor789
    Apr 25 at 11:22
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    What do you even search for in your answers? Whether it is an addiction, what or if it causes harm? Whether they have an obligation to prevent harm? To what extend they are obligated to prevent harm and how that clashes with the individual autonomy and the freedom to take risks? Whether the users are sufficiently informed of the risk? Whether there are alternatives? The role of the users and the companies? Do you have a particular moral framework or is this better suited in a medical or legal forum? And so on
    – haxor789
    Apr 25 at 13:30

3 Answers 3

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The issue of social media addiction and its impact on individuals' well-being is a significant concern in contemporary society. Several scholars have explored the ethical dimensions of social media platforms' design and their responsibility for users' excessive usage. Here are some key points and potential references you might want to consider:

Moral Responsibility of Social Media Platforms:

Social media platforms undoubtedly wield considerable influence over users' behavior through their design features, algorithms, and content recommendations. Many argue that these platforms have a moral responsibility to prioritize user well-being over profit maximization. By deliberately designing interfaces to be addictive and maximizing user engagement, social media companies may be contributing to harmful effects on mental health and productivity.

Ethical Implications of Design Choices:

Scholars have examined the ethical implications of social media design choices, such as infinite scrolling, notifications, and personalized recommendations. These features are often engineered to exploit psychological vulnerabilities and keep users hooked for longer periods. Critiques suggest that such manipulative tactics prioritize corporate interests over users' autonomy and well-being, raising questions about the ethical responsibilities of social media companies.

Research Papers on Social Media Addiction:

Several of the academic papers that have explored the phenomenon of social media addiction and its societal implications are the following:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306460316301095

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323292530_Instagram_addiction_and_the_Big_Five_of_personality_The_mediating_role_of_self-liking

Calls for Ethical Regulation:

Given the potential harms associated with social media addiction, some scholars advocate for ethical regulations to mitigate these risks. This may include measures such as transparency in algorithmic decision-making, user empowerment tools, and promoting digital literacy and critical thinking skills among users.

It then follows, that the ethical responsibility of social media platforms in addressing addiction and promoting user well-being is a complex and multifaceted issue that warrants further exploration and scholarly inquiry. The cited references offer valuable insights into the psychological dynamics of social media addiction and its societal implications.

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    For the OP. the social psychologist Haidt certainly leans towards it. nature.com/articles/d41586-024-00902-2
    – J D
    Apr 25 at 13:37
  • It's interesting, but no more so than the vast, unnoticed areas of our lives that also influence behavior and have moral implications. I know someone who fell stepping off a curb and broke their arm. The design of sidewalks, curbs and roads is ubiquitous and affects nearly everyone. Shouldn't we be looking closely at this? I spend about half of my short commute sitting at stoplights. Shouldn't traffic flow be more sane? Many significant issues are right under our feet, but we worry instead about what is right under our noses. Yeah, the world could use a major revision. Parasitic wasps? What?
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 26 at 10:25
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I mean the obvious answer to this vague question is probably: yes.

The companies provide a service. The service has an effect. They are aware of the effect. They do have alternatives to providing that services and aren't (to my knowledge) forced or coerced to do it, so if such a thing exist, they do it out of their free will. They are aware of the effects that their actions have. So they most likely do bear some responsibility for these actions.

Beyond that you could probably talk a whole lot about the ethics of manipulation. How just doing your job can be harmful, despite not being criminal. Whether the user or the provider of a harmful service is to blame or how you split that. Whether people consent, give INFORMED consent, CAN give informed consent. Under which circumstances (including addiction) a person cannot give consent in the first place. If and who is to decide that and under what conditions and who should set those conditions. Is what seems best for a person actually what IS best for them and when are you allowed to decide that for someone else and when not. You could also branch into how ethical our entire economic systems is in that regard. How the billion dollar advertisement branch is doing essentially manipulation at or beyond the limit of what is morally acceptable. How they ride on razors edge of being successful enough to be profitable, but not too successful to be banned. Whether the idea of social media in the first place is problematic or whether it's the particular implementation.

I mean the size and scope of groups so big that there is always something new combined with a "you're part of a group when you interact with it" might already breed fear of missing out even without contributing to that actively. And so on and on and on. You can take so many angles to look at this and it would probably help if you narrow it down a little.

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  • There's an old joke about when people should get married, and one answer is: "after the first PhD." I guess the idea is that you wouldn't be smart enough to make a good decision before that. So, humans have stumbled along making poor choices due to ignorance (or 'inexperience' if you prefer) for... ever. It is widely held that the only folks who really know the right answers are on their deathbeds. Yet, we allow younger people to make their own choices anyway! What? "Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement." Find a better way, there's a Nobel prize for it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 26 at 10:18
  • We could start a new government agency to regulate ways people spend their free time. If it was up to me, my first move would be to ban professional and college sports, TV, gambling, monster truck rallies and car racing... Lots of things. What a total waste of time! Don't be a spectator, do something! Close the art galleries and put out paints and canvas on the streets. Learn. As a child, I spent a lot of time in a darkroom learning how to make photo prints. Well, time for breakfast.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 26 at 10:47
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  1. 30 or 40 years ago your friends would have mindlessly switched channels of the TV. 80 years ago they would have played cards drinking beers. They have nothing to do, their life - their responsibility. It's not about scary social networks. People managed to kill their time for centuries without them.

  2. Saying "it's addictive, it's addictive" reminds of drunkards who like saying - "but they keep pouring more alcohol, what can I do?" :)

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  • I guess I get your point that there seems to be a panic cycle whenever something new happens and people are quick to call it an addiction if they start to see it creep up everywhere and become the new normal. That being said it also sounds like you're severely downplaying actual addictions, especially alcoholism where at some point it's no longer killing time but compulsive behavior, where you develop psychological and physical dependencies and where people know it harms them and not just theoretically but struggle to quit it on their own.
    – haxor789
    Apr 25 at 9:30
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    40 years ago there were only 7 TV channels in a major metropolitan area where I grew up. Even adding cable just gave me 30 channels of stupidity and ads. How people spend their time is really up to them.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 10:53

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