The Agenda: Opener | Monocle

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Utah isn’t always seen as a beacon for progressivism but on 1 March the US state introduced a law that could provide a benchmark for combating what many believe is a public health emergency. The Social Media Regulation Act aims to restrict social media use among under-18s by requiring them to obtain parental permission to open an account, imposing a curfew between 22.30 and 06.30, and compelling technology companies to remove “addictive” features from their platforms. Whether or not internet use is addictive is debatable; it does not feature in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Indeed, the fact that laws restricting internet use on the basis of addiction are being passed without scientific support lends credence to those who argue that they are nothing more than the product of a moral panic.

But when you hear professionals discuss “real” addiction, the parallels are chilling. Anna Lembke, a Stanford University psychiatrist, says that addiction “begins with intermittent use, then progresses into daily use, and then progresses into consequential use”. There is now widespread belief that social media and internet use is inhibiting children’s development – socially, emotionally and even physically. “Kids who are heavily into video games and social media fall behind socially due to a lack of face-to-face interaction,” says Mike Bishop, a clinical psychologist who runs Summerland Camps, an organisation in the US that offers practical treatment for technology addiction in young people.

Summerland Camps runs retreats for 12- to 21-year-olds at which all devices are prohibited. “There’s no minimum amount of screen activity that you need to live,” Bishop tells monocle. But unlike with other addictions, it is understood that technology “addicts” will go back to using as soon as they leave. “We treat it more like someone who has a problem with overeating.” Bishop’s advice for concerned parents is to ask their children to track their screen time themselves. “We asked kids to convert the time they spend on their devices each week into the US minimum wage and then look at how much money they would save over a typical working lifetime for their retirement fund,” he says. “For most of them it was in the millions of dollars.

Abstinence is also the antidote favoured by Hector Hughes, co-founder of Unplugged, a company that operates 20 digital-detox rental properties in the UK (a number that it plans to double this summer). When guests arrive at one of the stylishly minimal huts, they place their devices in a box with a padlock, the key for which stays in a sealed envelope. Hughes says that some families renting the propertiesare keen to use the novelty of a phone-free holiday to spark a behavioural change in their children.

Laws like the one passed in Utah aim to spark that change from on high. Whether or not they succeed, public opinion seems to be turning away from a belief that unfettered access to the internet is an inevitability of modern life, towards one where its use, especially among young people, is legislatively proscribed. “When the car came out, it took us 50 years to come up with a seatbelt,” says Hughes. Bishop puts it in starker terms: “We’re going to look back at this time and compare it to how we saw smoking in the 1920s.” — L

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