A compulsive audience and a complicit news media

When is a distribution method that harms users’ brains no longer an acceptable cost of doing business?

In 2007, two years after the launch of The Huffington Post and two weeks before the incorporation of Twitter, Arianna Huffington collapsed in her office from fatigue. She regained consciousness in a pool of blood with a broken cheekbone and an epiphany about the internet. Her exhaustion was symptomatic of a public health crisis, she declared: Our addiction to modern technology creates the need for “digital detoxing.” Since then, the soon-to-be-former head of one of the most popular and prolific news websites has campaigned for a health awakening rooted in the belief that digital media, consumed in large doses, are, effectively, toxic.

Time is money on the internet, and The Huffington Post thrives in an online economy where “free” products are most profitable when they occupy, or divert, our attention the longest. The site publishes enough for about 100 hours of reading a day, much of it seen on smartphones via an aggressive social media push. In the last two years, HuffPo has also featured nearly 100 posts tagged “Digital Detox,” often of the not-so-academic sort, as in, “Why I Think I Need to Break Up With the Internet.”

It may be more productive to read journalism than to scroll through drivel and fluff, but showered in salt, a plate of kale and a plate of French fries will both raise your blood pressure.

While preparing for an event in June where she discussed sleep deprivation with Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Huffington considered written questions from CJR. “There’s a paradox, of course, in being a digital media company committed to telling stories about the importance of unplugging,” she wrote, “but it’s one we embrace!” A profile of her in The New York Times last year framed that irony less forgivingly: “It’s as though Huffington is spreading an illness while simultaneously peddling the cure.”

Because injuring your customers and then profiting from their healing is the essence of capitalistic depravity; because journalism is meant to nourish minds, rather than impair them; and because The Huffington Post is not unique in most ways, the Times’ description of Arianna Huffington reads as an indictment of her industry. Either the need to unplug is unfounded, or digital news media must do more to explain integrating their business with an intoxicant.

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“The problem with our addiction to our devices is not so much consuming journalism,” Huffington said, “as constantly being tethered to our texts, emails, constant notifications, and social media.” Despite her conviction about the gravity of the science, she said it didn’t necessitate a change in HuffPo’s publishing model. However, she has since decided that the best platform for detox evangelism isn’t journalism, but consulting: Yesterday she announced that she’s leaving The Huffington Post to work full-time on a startup with the murky mission of promoting employee wellness.

In recent years, many news organizations have reported on the damage done by the incessant pull of our digital devices. Yet they, too, look in the mirror and shrug. Jacob Weisberg, the chairman and editor in chief of Slate, has written about our fixation with devices but, like Huffington, he doesn’t fault news media. “I don’t think people have any problem overreading longform magazine articles,” he explains. As for the dilemma of news outlets partnering with social platforms that feed on compulsive behavior, he says, “Most news publishers would love to figure out a way to become a little more addictive.” Moreover, “content companies have to go where the readers are.”

But as outlets tailor their content to addictive platforms to pump up traffic, the distinction between consuming journalism and being wedded to “emails, constant notifications, and social media” is increasingly meaningless. It may be more productive to read journalism than to scroll through drivel and fluff, but showered in salt, a plate of kale and a plate of French fries will both raise your blood pressure.

In May, The Washington Post published “13, right now,” a profile of an ordinary girl in Virginia who, like all her friends, is obsessed with Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. She appears smart and nice, but her fixation with her phone is unambiguously worrisome, and the Post has reported extensively on the dangers of tech’s addictiveness, particularly for teenagers.

How does a respected news organization write a profile of a teen’s compulsive overuse of social apps, report on the research indicating that such behavior risks harming people’s brains, and then aggressively promote its content on those very apps and form publishing partnerships with them? The Post declined to discuss the topic.  

All new forms of media, from the first printed book to the latest virtual reality headset, have provoked debate over whether their popularity signals progress. The tech journalist Nicholas Carr was enthusiastic about computers at first. Slowly, it became harder for him to be absorbed by a book while the Web tugged at his concentration every few pages. “My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing,” Carr wrote in his canonical 2008 Atlantic cover story, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Carr referenced a study that examined reading habits on two research websites and found most people are inclined to just skim and bounce around. “It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense,” the study observed. Carr’s thesis is that if we are what and how we read, then our thinking will mirror the scattered and shallow tendencies of Web browsing. The piece evolved into his book The Shallows, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. Utopia Is Creepy comes out this fall.

New York Times Magazine and Wired writer Clive Thompson also has a conversion story. He was pessimistic about the internet at its inception; 20 years later, he wrote Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. “The Shallows has some terrific stuff in it,” he tells CJR, “but at that time there was this surge of confidence that we could understand complex brain science through neuroscanning. Most people who write about that have dialed back.” Carr says the effects of digital media must be interrogated from every angle. “The science aids us in what is fundamentally a cultural critique.” 

The connection between behaviors and their cause in the brain “sounds impressive but turns out to be redundant,” Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker wrote in a 2011 piece evaluating polarized responses to the internet. It’s implicit that trouble paying attention, for instance, stems from neurological dysfunction. The healthiness of media consumption is especially contentious because it’s interdisciplinary: Mental wellbeing is an issue of brain science, but it’s also a type of moral question. The ancient Greek notion of a “flourishing” mind could not be measured with an MRI.

“I can see my own attention span fragmenting in lots of ways,” Gopnik tells CJR. “It frightens me as an author.” But, he notes the absence of evidence confirming long-term damage. “If somebody had good, robust work that showed that kids who use social media at the age of nine are not going to be able to read constitutional law at the age of 18, I would take that seriously,” he says. “You need to have that kind of demonstrable science before you would hit the panic button.”

Responses to new media are also notoriously reactionary. “So, yes,” Carr wrote in The Atlantic, “you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct.” Eight years later, amid ubiquitous smartphones and social media, Carr says one has less cause to be skeptical of his concerns about digital media. Internet optimists are largely unmoved. “Maybe they’ve become enslaved by some of the technology that they see as emancipating,” he tells CJR.

We Are Hopelessly Hooked,” declared Weisberg, the Slate editor, in an essay earlier this year in The New York Review of Books. He begins by remarking on our obsessive attachment to smartphones—studies suggest we check them more than 200 times a day—and by noting surveys showing many people’s unhappiness while doing so. He concludes that “[w]e need a Web that is less corrosive to our humanity,” yet his piece makes no mention of the degree to which his profession is complicit. Weisberg tells CJR that he considers his own attention span to be undamaged, and he sees that supposed side-effect of digital media as unsubstantiated.

If Weisberg’s attention span remains intact, he may be the exception. A few years ago, Farhad Manjoo, now a tech columnist at The New York Times, wrote a Slate piece headlined “You Won’t Finish This Article.” It describes how after every paragraph of a post online, a wave of readers flees, citing data from the traffic analysis firm Chartbeat. “Readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out,” Manjoo writes. “And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online.”

Companies on the internet tend to capture our attention by fracturing it. “Every time you check your phone,” the MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle writes in her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, “what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot.” Tech scholars like Turkle are studying how this fixation can induce anxiety and depression and reduce our ability to empathize. Tech insiders expect the internet’s efforts to seduce eyeballs to intensify, and tech journalists continue to report on the chilling consequences, particularly for young people. The fear is much less a sudden collapse, like Huffington’s, than a slow crippling.

“We have not assessed the full human consequences of digital media,” Turkle writes. “We want to focus on its pleasures. Its problems have to do with unintended consequences.” The internet is far too vast to weigh all of its virtues against its vices. Media leaders can ask a much simpler question: When is a distribution method that harms our customers’ brains no longer an acceptable cost of doing business? 

Five years ago, when Google acquired a Web browser plug-in that Tristan Harris developed with a fellow recent Stanford grad, Harris went to work as “product philosopher” for the search giant. What he found there, and in Silicon Valley generally, is a lack of incentive to think about how devices ought to contribute to our lives; less is never more in the competition for our attention. With that mindset so entrenched, it would seem intimidating to be employed, in a sense, as Google’s conscience. “I’m not sure I’d call it intimidation,” he says, “so much as periodic hopelessness.”

Harris left Google earlier this year to campaign for a realignment of the tech industry’s values. Having studied alongside future founders of Instagram and Snapchat in Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, where students are taught the tricks computers use to manipulate users, then having worked in an industry that aspires to reshape humanity using those techniques, Harris wants to defeat the myth that moderating internet consumption is simply a matter of self-restraint. In an essay on Medium titled “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds,” he details the way computers mimic slot machines to maximize addictive behavior, linking physical actions, like swiping to refresh a social media feed, with “intermittent variable rewards”—maybe there will be a new post, maybe not. It’s a game smartphone users itch to play every few minutes. To fuel the perpetual fear of missing something important (a sibling of “FOMO”), social feeds require a bottomless well of content. News media are a natural supplier.

This incites “a race to the bottom of the brain stem,” Harris tells CJR. “There’s an illusion that we don’t live in this environment of perverse incentives.” It’s a collective action problem: Companies might not want to exploit mental weaknesses to extend time-on-screen, but competition demands it. Attention-based economics are the rule of the internet, whether for social apps or news organizations. Harris is confident about where that market is heading, as companies that profit from overpowering our attention have only one path to growth: “It’s going to become more and more persuasive. The chance that you will lose your agency and end up doing something you didn’t intend to will only get worse. It can’t get better.”

There is “Good news!” announced Microsoft last year—for advertisers, that is. In a consumer insights report that studied and surveyed Canadian media consumption, Microsoft found, “Overall, digital lifestyles deplete the ability to remain focused on a single task, particularly in non-digital environments,” adding, “Multi-screening trains consumers to be less effective at filtering out distractions—they are increasingly hungry for something new. This means more opportunities to hijack attention.” Out of context, the enthusiasm throughout the report could pass for satire. 

On the widely-read blog he’s maintained since 1999, the tech entrepreneur Anil Dash stresses that the internet follows cycles, giving hope that warped trends will straighten out. But lately, he tells CJR, he’s starting to question whether that rule still applies because of “the extreme centralization of titanically large companies,” while “the rate and severity of abuses coming from tech are only increasing.” He shares Harris’s skepticism that startups and struggling companies will forgo profit to honor their users’ best interests.

“I’m not anti-tech,” Dash says. “But if we could do it without a business model that preys on distracting us and stressing us out, I’d go for that.”

Some casinos try to cut off slot machine players who appear addicted, a New York Times story on the lure of technology notes, more likely in the interest of sustaining revenue streams than because of an ethical imperative. That doesn’t hold for the effects of internet overconsumption; it’s not so tangible as overspending or overeating. “There’s never a prompt to cut back,” Dash says. “You never get full.”

Instead, he describes “a continuum of harm” on the Web, from the stressful deceit of clickbait articles to the unchecked harassment on social media. “We don’t have a framework for monitoring harm or measuring culpability,” he says. “Nobody wants to be the new cigarette industry, so the blame gets spread around so that no one company is accountable.”

Studying technology is like “environmentalism of the mind,” the writer Clive Thompson says. Indeed, Sherry Turkle likens the perils of digital media to climate change: The upside is immediate, the worst problems are far off, and the industry lacks the incentive to change.

Another popular analogy compares digital media to the food industry. “Just as the food industry manipulates our innate biases for salt, sugar, and fat with perfectly engineered combinations,” Tristan Harris writes, “the tech industry bulldozes our innate biases” for things like social approval and novelty-seeking. He hopes consumers will demand more mindful technology as they did healthier foods.

Mental wellbeing is an issue of brain science, but it’s also a type of moral question. The ancient Greek notion of a ‘flourishing’ mind could not be measured with an MRI.

But as Carr notes, “Cheap and pleasurable can overwhelm questions of quality.” The sight of widespread obesity raises alarms in a way that the sight of people glued to their phones cannot, and an expanding waistline is easier to self-identify than a diminishing mental capacity. The comparison also underscores the limits of anecdotal reporting: A fit person who regularly eats at McDonald’s proves nothing about the health risks of fast food. That said, focusing on the uncertain long-term consequences of overusing tech is an odd sort of farsightedness, like the drunk who wakes up each day with a terrible hangover but worries only about possibly endangering his liver.

If digital media were like smoking cigarettes, “you can’t encourage that,” Thompson says. “But oh my goodness, we are so far from that. And anyone who is claiming that is being scientifically loose and a-historic.” He is right to put the health effects of technology in perspective, but asking if a product kills you is also a low bar for corporate responsibility.

The author Jonathan Franzen calls the analogy between food and media “politically unsettling.” “Since platforms that discourage engagement are less profitable,” he wrote in a review of Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation for the Times, “they would have to charge a premium that only affluent, well-educated consumers of the sort that shop at Whole Foods are likely to pay.”

This ominous hypothetical is of course true today, with paywalled news sites spared the need to stoop and claw for views. But Franzen’s point is also revealing of a more encouraging truth, which is that many of the concerns with social media relate only to the largest feed-based, advertising-oriented platforms. “As soon as you start selling [users’] eyeballs, you get pushed toward scale,” Thompson says, “and anytime you try and scale socializing, it breaks.” He adds, “The problem with feed-based social networks is that they privilege recency. Humans are already present-focused. One of the jobs of [reading] is to dislodge us from our present focus. Conversely, a lot of social media is obsessed with the idea of what’s happening right now. To me, this is a horrible design.” 

I’m not anti-tech. But if we could do it without a business model that preys on distracting us and stressing us out, I’d go for that.”

News outlets certainly shouldn’t abandon digital media, but they need to pursue online strategies that advance their work, rather than degrading their work to advance online strategies. Some engineers in Silicon Valley feel handcuffed by the pressures of their industry, and journalists can relate. Many media leaders say the industry is too tumultuous right now to pass up business opportunities, although even at Google, a $500 billion company, Tristan Harris felt that a more humane corporate mindset was hopeless. Government regulation is one option—an “FDA for tech,” Harris imagines—but that idea is usually floated and dismissed in the same breath, as most people in news and tech are unenthusiastic about laws constraining mass media. Another option is a shift in consumer values, which could be partially inspired, like many such movements, by stirring journalism.  

Much has been said about the precarious decision to publish journalism directly to Facebook and the vicious harassment that thrives on social media, especially toward women and minorities, along with issues of platform editorial bias and censorship. Social media also offer wonderful opportunities for journalism.

Yet social strategies for news media are largely beholden to business interests. That some content must be cheapened, sensationalized, and churned out in bulk to amass traffic and woo advertisers may seem justifiable if it finances more meaningful work. The fear of digital media’s addictiveness, though, isn’t just that it compels us to consume shallow things, but that it might impair our ability to do otherwise. Adam Gopnik asks whether young people who spend years compulsively on their phones will be able to read constitutional law. How about The New Yorker?

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Danny Funt is a senior editor at The Week and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt

TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Ben Sanders