Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff calls for regulating social media like cigarettes -- but the problem is more insidious than that

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce. Photo: Kimberly White/ Getty Images.
  • Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said at the World Economic Forum that social media should be regulated like cigarettes.
  • Psychology experts and tech executives claim the analogy is misguided.
  • Digital technology, including social media, is now necessary for people to complete their jobs.
  • Solutions must be based on personal empowerment, not top-down bans, they claim.

At the World Economic Forum recently, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff drew a contentious analogy linking social media consumption to cigarette smoking.

Interviewer Andrew Ross Sorkin had asked Benioff how to regulate a company like Facebook, which has been fighting claims that the platform keeps people hooked and disseminates fake news. Benioff replied, “You’d do it exactly the same way you regulated the cigarette industry,” since both products lead to addictive behaviour and each is potentially harmful.

“Maybe there [are] all kinds of different forces trying to get you to do certain things,” Benioff said. “There’s a lot of parallels.”

Digital technology is a modern necessity

According to psychology experts and tech executives working to curb tech addiction, Benioff’s analogy falls short. Treating Facebook and other platforms like tobacco companies overlooks how vital smartphones and other digital technology are to everyday life, which complicates the way they can be regulated, these experts say.

SmartphoneDavid Becker/Getty Images

Recent Pew surveys indicate that people use their online social networks to get information that helps them solve problems at work, connect with the right people, and ask work-related questions of people outside their organisation.

While some people use Facebook to waste time, which we might think of as a digital smoke-break, the social network and its many peers – such as LinkedIn and Twitter – also enrich people’s professional lives.

Gabe Zichermann, CEO of Onward, an app that helps people manage their tech use, wrote recently that social media is no longer just a time-waster at work.

“If their work involves engineering, marketing, sales, recruitment, or communications theyneedto be on social media during the day,” argued Gabe Zichermann, CEO of Onward, an app that helps people manage their tech use, in a recent article. “And they would reject paternalistic efforts to reduce tech use.”

Sherry turkleJemal Countess/Getty Images

Social-media use looks more like over-eating

Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” argues there’s a closer analogy that should help solve the problem of tech overuse.

“I think it’s much less like smoking and much more like eating,” Turkle told Business Insider. “We have to eat, and people need to learn to make good food choices.”

A crisis of tech addiction, in other words, looks more like the ongoing obesity epidemic. While rates of cigarette smoking have been on the decline in the US for several decades, obesity rates continue to grow. And just as major food corporations sell processed foods that are loaded with added sugar and chemicals meant to keep people eating, Turkle and other addiction experts say big tech companies have been repeatedly accused of designing their apps to maximise the time people spend on them.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, has seen the engineering tricks firsthand. Features like autoplay videos, endless scrolling, and gamification encourage constant use, Harris has said. They help explain how people may plan to watch just one YouTube video and glance at Twitter but somehow end up spending a half hour on both.

Turkle encourages people to seriously evaluate how much time they spend on devices, since it’s not feasible to eliminate tech altogether. She believes it may also be necessary for governments to impose mandates in tech design that prevent kids from using tech without parental supervision.

“The way I like to put it is technology can make us forget what we know about life,” she said. “One of the things it’s made us forget is that we need to tend to our relationships and other people and our own feelings.”

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