A TikTok ban won’t solve social media’s collective trap

18th April, 2024

US legislators are eager to ban TikTok. They are missing a bigger question: should they also ban Instagram, Facebook and the network formerly known as Twitter? The obvious answer is “no”, because although everyone grumbles about social media, we still use these networks, which strongly suggests that deep down we still value them.

But what if that’s wrong? What if something about social media networks induces us to use them even though we dislike them?

One obvious parallel is with addictive activities, such as smoking or playing slot machines. A famous study by the economists Jonathan Gruber and Sendhil Mullainathan asked, more than two decades ago, “Do Cigarette Taxes Make Smokers Happier?” and concluded that the answer was “yes”. Strictly speaking, they found cigarette taxes benefit the-kind-of-person-who-is-likely-to-smoke, because the taxes dissuade some of those people from starting, and persuade others to stop.

A more intriguing prospect is that social media is, in the words of economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Ben Handel, Rafael Jimenez and Christopher Roth, a “collective trap”. Let’s say that you dislike Instagram or Facebook, but that all your friends find it a convenient way to communicate. You might then find it rational to use these social media platforms, even if you believe that you would be better off if they simply did not exist.

If Bursztyn and his colleagues are right, even if smartphones aren’t addictive (and, let’s face it, they are), we may have to use social media networks that we hate, because the alternative is to be cut off entirely.

The researchers tested this idea by recruiting students and offering them money to deactivate their TikTok and Instagram accounts for four weeks. On average, students needed to be paid about $50 per account to agree to do this ($59 for TikTok and $47 for Instagram). However, when told that if there were enough recruits, every student at the university would be required to deactivate their accounts, students viewed the services very differently. Now they would pay about $50 to live for a month in a world without TikTok and Instagram ($67 to have everyone switch off TikTok, $39 to have everyone switch off Instagram).

You don’t have to take the precise numbers seriously to be struck by the contrast. Students dislike the idea of being the only one to lose social media access, but would be delighted to live in a world where social media simply did not exist. It’s a pernicious kind of externality.

As Leonardo Bursztyn told the Freakonomics podcast, a collective product-market trap is like second-hand smoke, except “the only way to avoid second-hand smoke is by smoking”.

This finding sheds new light on the broader evidence that social media networks are making us — particularly teenagers and particularly teenage girls — miserable.  This week, the World Happiness Report revealed that in the US, the happiness of the under-thirties has slumped. Since the inception of the World Happiness Report in 2012, the US has always placed in the top 20 happiest countries in the world, but has been dragged out of that club by the misery of young Americans: rated by the wellbeing of the under-thirties, the US now ranks 62nd in the world. (Looking at the over-sixties, the US is in the top 10. OK, boomer? The boomers are indeed OK.)

Is that because of the ubiquity of smartphone-enabled social media for American teens? That’s unclear. There is a striking difference between what the broad trends tell us, and what more focused work on individuals has found. 

The broad trends look grim indeed, according to Jean Twenge, author of iGen, and Jonathan Haidt, author of The Anxious Generation. They point to sharp increases in credible measures of anxiety, depression and self-harm in teenagers, particularly teenage girls, beginning at the same time that social media apps on smartphones became widely available to them.

On the other hand, critics such as Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski point out that these trends are very broad correlations. More focused work finds little evidence that teenagers feel better when they try a “digital detox”, temporarily switching off their social media accounts, and some evidence that they feel cut off when they do.

But from the point of view of the collective trap, there is no contradiction here. It’s perfectly plausible that social media is laying waste to the wellbeing of a generation, yet each teenager is right to believe that things would be even worse if they unilaterally unplugged. 

Once you start pondering the idea of a collective trap, you see them everywhere. Tall, heavy cars such as SUVs are an example. Why does anyone drive such an inefficient, impractical vehicle in an urban environment? The answer, surely, is that they are worried about being hit by another tall, heavy car. 

You could broaden the argument to the car itself. People often drive when they could walk or cycle (or let their children walk or cycle) because they do not feel safe on the roads. But the main danger on the roads? All those people driving, many of whom are only driving because they do not feel safe. I

t’s at times like these that the libertarian slumbering deep inside me splutters awake and warns that individual freedom is precious. True, true. I do not actually think either Instagram or driving should be illegal. But collective traps are real. There are times and places (near schools in particular) where almost everyone would be better off if nobody was allowed a smartphone or, for that matter, a car.  

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 22 March 2024.

My first children’s book, The Truth Detective is now available (not US or Canada yet – sorry).

I’ve set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom. Links to Bookshop and Amazon may generate referral fees.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This