The European Union is considering a proposal that would force tech companies to make their apps less addictive.
Member of the European Parliament Kim van Sparrentak has brought forward the initiative in an effort to protect consumers against the addictive elements of smartphone apps.
The draft report states that many online services are designed to keep users on the platform as much as possible, which seems to be working as 16-24 year olds on average spend about seven hours a day on the internet.
Another worrying development Ms van Sparrentak mentions in the draft report is that one in four children and young people display ‘problematic’ or ‘dysfunctional’ smartphone use.
Ms van Sparrentak told Dutch newspaper AD that the apps are hard to resist.
“No self-discipline can compete with the tricks of big tech companies, which employ armies of psychologists,” she said.
“Why do we still accept that?”
Here are some of the features the proposal is hoping to restrict.
Ending the ‘infinite scroll’
One of the most addictive design features in apps is called the “infinite scroll”. This means that users can keep scrolling through content continuously, with no end in sight.
The feature was initially designed for users to seamlessly scroll through posts and articles without having to reload different pages.
Most social media apps use infinite scrolling, including Facebook, Instagram, X, formerly Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Another addictive element is the ‘pull-to-refresh’ page reload, which can trigger a quick rush of dopamine in the hopes of finding something remarkable every time you reload the page.
In that sense, it can be compared to gambling, or a slot machine, where users keep pressing the button in the hopes of a reward.
Notifications turned off by default
The proposal also calls for a ‘digital right not to be disturbed’.
This means that all notifications would be turned off by default, making it less attractive for users to click on the countless notifications that keep them coming back to certain apps.
Never-ending auto-play is a relatively new element in social apps and can be found on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook Reels, and YouTube Shorts.
People scroll through their social apps and a video automatically starts playing without being prompted, grabbing the user’s attention.
Another way that tech companies keep users watching is by automatically directing the viewer to the next video, resulting in an endless rabbit hole of videos that the algorithm chooses based on viewing activity.
Before users realise it, they spend hours deep watching video after video.
The proposal also urges the European Commission to promote ethical designs of online services.
This includes warnings if you spend more than 15 or 30 minutes on a specific service.
Widespread support in parliament, big tech group says it wants to be part of the discussion
Members of the European Parliament across the board have voiced their support for Ms van Sparrentak’s proposal.
“Everyone has kids or nephews, with whom they see it happen”, she told AD.
If the European Parliament approves the proposal, the European Commission will translate them into legal texts next year and then those will need to be approved by the parliament and the 27 member states.
DOT Europe, the voice of the leading internet companies in Europe, has reacted to the proposal stating their members “constantly strive to better understand the impact (both positive and negative) and ensure that users/customers have a positive and safe experience online.”
DOT Europe also stated that it urges policymakers to engage in an open debate about both the potential positive and negative impacts, “not focus on single actors, products or technologies, nor mischaracterise the intentions of industry.”