Holding Our Attention

Holding Our Attention
Holding Our Attention

The founder of Social Awakening breaks down the perils of social media.

“Screen time is not the enemy, social media is,” says Max Stossel. Stossel, the founder of Social Awakening, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching kids and parents about the pitfalls and dangers of social media and technology, shared his message with students and again with parents in the evening while visiting Sidwell Friends School on November 30. To both groups, he posted a simple question: “Am I using this technology, or is the technology using me?”  

Stossel didn’t always ask such questions. For years, he was a strategist who ran social media for multinational brands, and later he worked for a social media company, where he designed some of the very notification structures to distract people that he now raises awareness about. Manipulating people for clicks, however, started to feel morally bankrupt to Stossel. Eventually, he left the world of tech and became the youth and education advisor for the Center for Humane Technology, an organization of former tech insiders dedicated to realigning technology with humanity. In 2022 he launched Social Awakening.

Stossel described how social media apps like Snapchat, which at first blush can appear to be nothing more than a messaging platform, incorporate game-like features and incentives to keep teens’ attention. One such feature is “streaks,” which allow users to get a star for every day in a row that they message the same person. With that incentive, many young people will write to one another not to communicate, but to maintain their streaks. If someone breaks a streak, kids may start to worry if it indicates something more about their friendship. Others might avoid or postpone romantic breakups for fear of ruining a good streak.

Stossel notes that even their dislike of a social media platform may not be enough to keep them from using. To illustrate that, Stossel asked the assembly of Middle Schoolers to raise their hands if they used Snapchat. About half the hands in the room went up. Then he asked them to keep their hands up if they were currently on a streak with someone. Every hand stayed up. Finally, he asked the students to lower their hands if they hated streaks. Every hand dropped—no looking around, no thinking about it, no caring what other people did. 

Why do people use social media platforms we hate? Stossel says the sites are engineered to give users a bolt of dopamine every time they see a star on their streak, or get a message, or receive  a “like” on a post. And, as with casinos, big tech companies are monetizing that response with amplifiers like countdown clocks and instant rewards—all designed to keep users in a kind of stress state that is broken only by the moments of rush that follow getting the star, the message, or the like.

When parents give kids smartphones, said Stossel, they are doing more than helping them keep in touch or look up helpful information. They are essentially handing the entirety of the internet to an adolescent who is at the most socially vulnerable point in their life. How to counter this? Sossel, whose recommendations may not win him much support among students, suggested  using old-fashioned flip phones to keep in touch, ditching social media altogether, or using apps like One Sec (which forces users to wait and take a deep breath before logging onto any social media). Notably, he was not a fan of parental controls on devices: “There’s an army of children working on this problem right now,” he quipped of young people’s savvy at getting around parental controls.

Mostly, Stossel encouraged parents and kids alike to act with intentionality: “Am I logging into YouTube to learn how to tie a bowtie, or am I just bored and passively ingesting whatever the algorithm sends my way?” He also told both audiences that just knowing they are being influenced and maneuvered is helpful. “You’re being manipulated,” he said. “Let’s figure this out together.”

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