Problematic smartphone use ‘challenge of our time’, MEPs say in addiction warning

MEPs want Commission regulation of addictive design features in smartphones such as endless scrolling, pull-to-refresh, never-ending auto-play videos, push notifications, and likes

Problematic smartphones use affects attention span and brain development from a young age
Problematic smartphones use affects attention span and brain development from a young age

Brussels is being asked to regulated the issue of addictive design within digital services, online games and social media with a new body of regulations.

MEPs from the European Parliament’s internal market and consumer protection committee voted 38-0 in favour, one abstention, of a report asking the European Commission to address the lacunae.

They raised the alarm over the addictive design features of certain digital services and called for Commission rules that foster ethical design by default, saying that online games, social media, streaming services, and online marketplaces can exploit people’s vulnerabilities to capture their attention and monetise on their data.

“No self-discipline can beat the addictive design we are all subject to today,” said Green MEP Kim Van Sparrentak (Greens). “Problematic smartphones use affects attention span and brain development from a young age. This is one of the challenges of our time. If we do not intervene now, this will have an enormous impact on generations to come. We already have strong health and safety rules for food, alcohol and tobacco to protect our health. The EU must now tackle addictive design!”

The European Commission is currently carrying out an evaluation to see if it needs to update certain consumer protection legislation to ensure a high level of protection in the digital environment. The results are expected in 2024. Parliament’s own-initiative report, once adopted in plenary, will feed into the ongoing fitness check.

MEPs in their report said social media’s addictive design can cause physical, psychological and material harm, with loss of concentration and cognitive ability, burnout, stress, depression, limited physical activity.

They said they are especially worried about the impact digital addiction has on children and adolescents, who are more vulnerable to these symptoms, and they call for more research and regulation in this area.

“MEPs believe that recent rules such as the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Artificial Intelligence Act are not enough to regulate the issue of addictive design. They urge the Commission to close existing legal gaps and present new legislation on the topic. If this is not addressed, they say, Parliament should use its right of legislative initiative,” the IMCO committee said.

In addition, MEPs said harmful addictive techniques not covered by the directive on Unfair Commercial Practice – such as infinite scroll, default auto play, constant push and read receipt notifications – should be examined and prohibited by the Commission.

For example, they want the Commission to put forward a digital “right not to be disturbed” and create a list of good design practices such as: “think before you share”; turning off notifications by default; chronological feeds; greyscale mode; warnings or automatic locks after a pre-set time use (in particular for minors); total screen time summaries.

They also said education guidelines and awareness-raising campaigns should promote self-control strategies to help individuals develop safer online behaviours and healthy habits.

Addictive design features – endless scrolling, pull-to-refresh, never-ending auto-play videos, push notifications, temporarily available stories, likes, read-receipt – can play on people’s vulnerabilities and desires and nudge them into spending more time on these platforms.

Problematic smartphone or internet use has also been linked to lower life satisfaction and mental health symptoms such as depression, low self-esteem, body-image and eating disorders, anxiety, stress, neglect of family and friends, loss of self-control, lack of sleep and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, with children and young people being the most vulnerable.

Some research also links adolescents’ problematic social media use with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms.

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