Friday, June 14, 2024

The EU wants to cure your teen’s smartphone addiction 

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Measures could include ensuring that algorithms don’t recommend videos about dieting to teenage girls or turning off autoplay by default so that minors don’t stay hooked watching content.

Platforms will also be banned from tracking kids’ online activity to show them personalized advertisements. Manipulative designs such as never-ending timelines to glue users to platforms have been connected to addictive behavior, and will be off limits for tech companies. 

Brussels is also working with tech companies, industry associations and children’s groups on rules for how to design platforms in a way that protects minors. The Code of Conduct on Age Appropriate Design planned for 2024 would then provide an explicit list of measures that the European Commission wants to see large social media companies carry out to comply with the new law.

Yet, the EU’s new content law won’t be the magic wand parents might be looking for. The content rulebook doesn’t apply to popular entertainment like online games, messaging apps nor the digital devices themselves. 

It remains unclear how the European Commission will potentially investigate and go after social media companies if they consider that they have failed to limit their platforms’ negative consequences for mental well-being. External auditors and researchers could also face obstacles to wade through troves of data and lines of code to find smoking guns and challenge tech companies’ claims. 

How much companies are willing to run up against their business model in the service of their users’ mental health is also an open question, said John Albert, a policy expert at the tech-focused advocacy group AlgorithmWatch. Tech giants have made a serious effort at fighting the most egregious abuses, like cyber-bullying, or eating disorders, Albert said. And the level of transparency made possible by the new rules was unprecedented.

“But when it comes to much broader questions about mental health and how these algorithmic recommender systems interact with users and affect them over time… I don’t know what we should expect them to change,” he explained. The back-and-forth vetting process is likely going to be drawn out as the Commission comes to grips with the complex platforms.

“In the short term, at least, I would expect some kind of business as usual.”

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