Can Nudges Make Social Media Less Harmful?

Last week, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, joined a class action lawsuit aimed at holding some of the world’s leading social media platforms accountable for their addictive services. The lawsuit argues, in part, that social media giants such as Facebook and Instagram have not only sought to attract young people to their platforms but also “addict youth … by amplifying harmful material, dosing users with dopamine hits, and thereby driving youth engagement and advertising revenue.” In essence, Bucks County has joined a growing chorus of parents, guardians, teachers, and advocates concerned about the detrimental health effects of near-constant social media exposure on young people—including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.


The Bucks County lawsuit comes on the heels of a damning CDC report highlighting the youth mental health crisis, which found:


“…mental health among students overall continues to worsen, with more than 40% of high school students feeling so sad or hopeless that they could not engage in their regular activities for at least two weeks during the previous year—a possible indication of the experience of depressive symptoms. We also saw significant increases in the percentage of youth who seriously considered suicide, made a suicide plan, and attempted suicide.”


Declining youth mental health, coupled with its potential link to persistent social media use, begs the question: what can be done to protect teens’ well-being?


An outright ban on all social media platforms for people under a certain age seems unrealistic to legislate and even more challenging to enforce. Moreover, in today’s polarized political climate, garnering consensus on precisely what should be done—at the federal, state, or local levels—is daunting.


This doesn’t mean nothing can be done.


Government officials and tech companies can look to the emerging science of behavioral economics, particularly “nudges.” Nudges—made popular by Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler and Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein’s groundbreaking book—are essentially non-invasive tools which direct individuals toward improved behaviors, such as increasing retirement savings or choosing healthier food options.


Applied to the current youth mental health crisis, nudges may also be employed to help reduce teens’ social media usage.


For instance, a simple nudge would automatically alert users of their time on social media after a specific threshold, say 15 minutes of scrolling. This is a change from current practices on platforms like Facebook, which require users to opt in (rather than out) of such notifications.


Another, perhaps even more compelling nudge, employs the power of social norms, which have been proven effective in promoting pro-social behaviors in various domains. In their popular 2008 paper, scholars Noah J. Goldstein, Robert B. Cialdini, and Vladas Griskevicius demonstrated the promising effects of social norms in increasing towel reuse rates at hotels. Current Stanford professor Hunt Allcott illustrated in a 2011 paper how social norms could be used to decrease household energy usage.


Similar nudges can be applied to social media. For example, one nudge might simply provide in-app prompts comparing users’ social media time with others on the platform (e.g., you are using Facebook 20% longer than the average user). A potentially more effective extension would include what behavioral researchers call “injunctive norms,” which indicate the level of social acceptance related to a particular behavior. An example would be the inclusion of a smiley face for individuals who use a particular social media platform less than the average and a frowny face for individuals who spend an above-average amount of time on the platform. Based on prior behavioral research, these injunctive norms may also prevent a so-called “boomerang effect,” where below-average users subsequently increase their social media time after learning how relatively little they use a particular platform compared to their peers.


Integrating nudges into prospective legislation aimed at curbing social media use among teens may also, theoretically, garner support from legislators across the political spectrum. Specifically, nudges don’t limit personal choice (i.e., they don’t force teens to stop using Instagram)—instead, nudges simply direct people toward healthier behaviors. Consequently, nudges can alleviate fears of government overreach or “Big Tech” control while still achieving the policy’s primary goals. The low-cost and non-invasive nature of nudges is also likely to appeal to social media companies looking to be proactive and signal to potential litigants that they are taking steps to mitigate the risks associated with their addictive products.


Indeed, nudges provide only one possible avenue for concerned stakeholders to address social media use and its potentially detrimental effects on teen mental health. The use of nudges should not preclude the implementation of broader, more aggressive measures, particularly since limited research has studied the impacts of behavioral science on curbing social media use and improving well-being. Additional research into the political feasibility of nudges in the current polarized climate is also required. However, given the current trend of teen mental health, behavioral science offers simple yet intriguing tools to address this urgent issue.


Murray Fallk

Murray Fallk is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Land Economy at the University of Cambridge (Pembroke College) in the United Kingdom. His research focuses on themes spanning economics, public policy, demography, the environment, and energy. He recently completed his MPhil in Land Economy Research at the University of Cambridge (Pembroke College), where his research focused on the socio-political implications of energy extraction.

Murray earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Policy Analysis and Management from Cornell University in 2020. He also has previous internship experience with Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-Pennsylvania) and the Politics and Public Opinion team at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

His personal website, and he can be contacted at [email protected].

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