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Hey, Instagram: It's Time to Lose the 'Likes'

Professor’s Research Calls for Government to Save Americans From Digital Addiction

Molly Mastantuono

Professor Pierre Berthon
              Pierre Berthon

Watch out, Instagram: The days of your “likes” may be numbered.

Or rather, un-numbered. According to Professor of Marketing and Information Design and Corporate Communication Pierre Berthon, the government may soon take measures to regulate digital media feedback — for example, replacing the specific number of “likes” a post generates with a single smiley face instead — in an effort to keep Americans from continuously checking and becoming addicted to their digital devices.

“We’re in the early stages of what is likely to become a digital experience addiction epidemic,” Berthon cautions. In a recent study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, he and his co-authors note how smartphones, digital watches and other devices increasingly demand more of people’s time and attention: According to industry research, the average U.S. teenager spends nine hours a day using media devices.

This statistic rings true for Abby Hill ’20, a Marketing major. “Between my computer, my iPhone and my Fitbit, I probably spend more time than that,” she admits, noting that she goes online not only for email and Instagram, but also to read books and watch TV. What’s more, Hill says, “I only take off my Fitbit when I shower.”

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But digital devices don’t just command our time and attention. Berthon notes that, as with substance-based addictions, the compulsive overuse of digital experiences can have a debilitating effect on our mental and physical health, our social interactions and even the economy. Indeed, in other countries, digital media consumption is considered a public health crisis. For example, China — which in 2008 became the first nation to classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder — is home to an estimated 23 million “Internet addicts,” the vast majority of whom are young adults who spend hours and even days online. As a result, China now has hundreds of “boot camp”-like treatment centers where families spend thousands of dollars to wean their sons and daughters off what some experts call “digital heroin.” 

Although America hasn’t yet reached this level of digital distraction, Berthon fears for our future. “None of us is immune to technology,” he says. “It’s the water in which we swim.” He says it’s important to be conscious of how, when and where we engage with digital devices. This is no easy task, however; as Berthon notes, “Companies consciously design their products to maximize our time online. They are much better at manipulating us than we are at managing ourselves.” 

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So, if we can’t depend on the industry—or even ourselves—to regulate digital behavior, what can we do? According to Berthon, federal legislation may be the answer. He notes that the government has stepped in historically to regulate alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, and believes digital devices can benefit from similar treatment. Here are five things he thinks the government can do to help:

  1. Mandate labels. Similar to cigarette labels, companies would be required to provide more transparent product information — e.g., “The average user spends four hours per day on this app”— so consumers can make a more informed decision.
  1. Disable apps when driving. Although many states have laws banning the use of mobile devices while driving, talking and texting behind the wheel remains a serious problem. Berthon’s answer: Federally mandated “device-to-device communications protocols” that disable a driver’s communication apps when the vehicle is moving.
  1. Require safety features.  Companies would have to implement features that allow users to more safely manage their digital experiences. Examples include “friction billing”— requiring users to exit an app to make purchases — and adding breaks in content, similar to chapters in a book, to keep users from scrolling endlessly.
  1. Eliminate “likes.” Berthon explains, “Humans are wired to seek social approval and will act in ways to maximize positive social feedback.” In the digital world, this feedback is expressed by the number of “likes” a post or picture generates, which promotes addiction by encouraging users to continually check for updates. Instead, Berthon argues for “demetrification”: Replacing the specific number of “likes” with a single smiley (or sad) face, reflecting average response. In fact, Instagram is already testing a similar approach in Canada, allowing the person who posts to see aggregate “likes,” but hiding them from public view.  
  1. Restrict access.  Berthon argues that implementing outright bans — such as prohibiting Wi-Fi in schools during study hours or making it illegal for teenagers to play the most addictive games — may be the only way to protect America’s most vulnerable users.

Even with these interventions, Berthon notes there is no “silver bullet”: “We need to have a public discussion. It needs to be a movement on all levels: individual, corporate, federal.” This concerted approach, he says, is the only way for us to develop healthy relationships with our digital devices—and what’s not to “like” about that?