‘Everything is at stake here’: Startups aim to break addictions to social media

“I felt I had to use it compulsively every day,” says Kristen Hansen of her addiction to social media in high school. While her parents limited device use until she was in Grade 10, as soon as she got access to Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, she was hooked.

Hansen, now an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says she was constantly distracted, finding it difficult to read a book or socialize. Soon, what she was seeing during those hours spent on social media started to impact her body image and her confidence. “It really wasn’t positive for me.”

Gen Zs such as Hansen spend three hours a day on social media, according to GWI, a market analyst. Big tech has won the war for attention, and the spoils are rolling in. In 2022, 65 per cent of the money spent on advertising globally flowed through digital channels, totalling approximately US$549 billion. From the infinite scroll to pull-to-refresh, Silicon Valley has created user experiences that exploit psychological vulnerabilities to keep users profitably engaged. Now, the societal costs are mounting.

Evidence of the negative impacts of social media use has been emerging for the last decade. The number of suicide deaths and attempted suicides has surged among teenagers, as have depression and anxiety. The more time adolescents spend online, the lower their psychological well-being. In a large-scale study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore traced the mental health of more than 6,000 adolescents aged 13 to 15 and found that those who spent more than three hours daily on social media doubled their risk of experiencing poor mental health.

Apple and Google have responded to these concerns by introducing screentime monitoring tools. While these tools provide useful insights, they are ineffective at blocking excessive use, according to Ulrik Lyngs, a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford’s Human Centred Computing group. Lyngs is especially disappointed with the screen-time tool that comes as the default with iPhones. Apple’s business model is not based on capturing attention, he says, meaning it could build a screentime tool that is effective, but “what they’ve built instead is the laziest, most useless solution.”

In his paper The Goldilocks Level of Support, Lyngs and his team analyzed more than 300 tools designed to help people self-regulate digital use. They scraped and analyzed tens of thousands of reviews and found that users wanted a tailored level of support that is just right for them – a screentime app that isn’t so easy to override with just one tap, but not so onerous that it blocks useful content. That’s the Goldilocks level. “We already know how to build good blocking tools,” Lyngs adds.

While the screentime tools from Apple and Google don’t make the cut, niche startups are filling that gap. A new generation of tools is emerging for people to take back control of their attention, and these tools already have millions of users. From Forest, in which users nurture a virtual tree by avoiding social media distractions, to One Sec that nudges users to take a breath before opening social media, these apps are inverting big-tech designs to loosen their grip.

“Basically, every technological advancement in the last 10 years is to the advantage of big tech.”

Frederik Riedel, the founder of One Sec app, says that “basically, every technological advancement in the last 10 years is to the advantage of big tech.” Social media apps load instantly, serving up content that is algorithmically calibrated to get users hooked. Where Silicon Valley nudges consumers to a frictionless future of easy consumption, Riedel built his app to put friction back into the process. Users wanting to kick their Instagram habit can configure One Sec to make an intervention every time they open the app. One Sec doesn’t block Instagram or other apps, it just introduces a few-seconds delay – prompting users to take a breath and giving them the option not to continue. That’s often all it takes.

A study by researchers from Germany’s Heidelberg University and Max-Plank Institute showed that one-third of users chose not to proceed to the target app, such as Instagram and Twitter, after seeing the intervention by One Sec. The results were not only sticky but habit forming. Over the course of the study, users attempted to open the target apps fewer times. A lot fewer: “One Sec decreased users’ actual opening by apps by 57 per cent after six consecutive weeks,” the study concluded.

One Sec now has 1.9 million users across iOS and Android, with 550,000 hourly active users. That’s more than half a million interventions every hour, showing that a little friction can go a long way.

With generative AI, the stakes are getting higher as companies can now generate content tailored to the individual. Lyngs cautions that generative AI can make content more engaging, feeding the business model that harvests user attention for ad revenue. But AI can also help counter the persuasive design built into addictive tech platforms.

Lyngs imagines a future in which an AI sidekick could screen the content for users. Just as top executives have personal assistants to safeguard their attention, an AI sidekick could consume the firehose of information stimuli, digest it, and forward only what the user cares about.

Virtual voice assistants already available point to a future in which AI would enable a less distracting interface. On Nov. 9, Humane, a San Francisco-based AI startup, introduced AI Pin, a screenless device that may one day replace the smartphone. The device operates primarily by voice and can sift through texts and calls to summarize the essence of what its wearer needs to know.

In his final column, noted tech journalist Walt Mossberg predicted that computers would fade into the background, waiting to be activated by a voice command or a change in the environment. While that future looks plausible with the recent developments in AI and computing, the shift will be gradual – and probably will confer greater power to big tech, a group that includes Google, Meta and ByteDance that collectively traffic in the attention of more than 4 billion people. In the meanwhile, the public-health risk of social media has become so pressing that the U.S. surgeon general has issued an advisory on social media and youth mental health that calls for a multi-faceted response to reduce its harm.

While maverick engineers in the trenches of the attention economy show that it’s possible to subvert big-tech design patterns to put people back in control of their attention, their user base is still a microscopic sliver of those of the big-tech platforms.

There is also a self-selection bias in that only people motivated to curtail their social media use seek out digital self-regulation tools. Lyngs says regulators need to step in to balance the scale and safeguard the public interest. Regulators should ensure that users have control over their user interfaces – for example, the ability to introduce friction and control recommendations.

“Everything is at stake here,” says Lyngs.

Society depends on our ability to pay sustained attention to what matters – and all of that now hinges on creating a healthier digital environment.


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Adnan Haider


Adnan Haider is the senior vice president of analytics at a financial technology firm in Toronto and a fellow in the Dalla Lana Fellowship in Journalism and Health Impact at the University of Toronto.

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