Commuters use their mobile phones as they stand in an MTR train station in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district in December 2018. Emotive social feeds are good for advertising businesses, but destructive to mental health and social cohesion. Photo: AFP
Eric Stryson
Eric Stryson

Regulate the use of digital media for better mental health in Hong Kong

  • Societies confronting the malaise of internet addiction should not leave it to the individual to overcome the problem
  • Policymakers should intervene by restricting screen time for students, limiting access to app stores and curbing adverts

Mental health is a concern in Hong Kong. The city scored a record low on one mental health index in 2020, while a University of Hong Kong survey in August that year found 75 per cent of respondents reporting signs of moderate to severe depression.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in one index this year, Hong Kong ranks among the worst cities for financial stress (8th) and social security (3rd). And one of the more insidious and commonly overlooked contributors to the mental health crisis is our addiction to mobile devices. It is time to confront it.

Hongkongers spend upwards of seven hours a day on the internet, two on social media. Such self-reported figures are undoubtedly underestimates. Given the city’s long working hours, much online media is consumed at work.

Yet devices dominate leisure time too, on display in any public space. The opportunity costs are paid in sleep deprivation, poor exercise, and weak human friendships, all critical sources of mental health and personal resilience.
Hongkongers gather to play the mobile game Pokemon Go in Tuen Mun in July 2016. Photo: Sam Tsang

Understanding how this addiction was engineered should motivate appropriate policy intervention for the public good. As an undergraduate, I studied the psychology of mind control. Taught by the mastermind behind the Stanford prison experiment, Dr Philip Zimbardo, the course was rooted in behavioural insights from charismatic dictators, cult leaders and advertising geniuses.

A teaching assistant from that class later created a boot camp where ambitious young techies applied the scientific principles of human psychology to create irresistible digital media products. Innovations from the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab (now renamed the Behaviour Design Lab) – the “like” button, video auto-play, “infinite scroll”, intermittent notifications – have become cornerstones of how we interact with our devices.

Exploiting universal human vulnerabilities, persuasive design gamified the chemical reward centres in our brains and produced a digital pandemic far more pervasive and destructive than Covid-19.

Ironically, despite generating billions of dollars for owners, the inventors of addictive apps will not let their own children go near them. Researchers have linked excessive social media usage among adolescents with increased rates of suicide and self-harm.

Emotive social feeds, often “sticky” with misinformation, are good for advertising businesses, but destructive to mental health and social cohesion. Users quite literally cannot take their eyes off it.


South Korea opens ‘smartphone addiction’ treatment camps

South Korea opens ‘smartphone addiction’ treatment camps
Anger and social polarisation are often the result. In Hong Kong, it has driven a wedge between the yellow and blue, young and old, institutions and the public, and fuelled vaccine hesitancy.

Describing the origins of the attention economy, former Facebook vice-president of user growth Chamath Palihapitiya admitted that he and his colleagues created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of society. Future historians will wonder why we rewarded them so handsomely for causing so much damage, or why so little action is taken as the digital virus spreads.

Despite such high-profile confessions, US policymakers appear unconcerned with addictive business models, focused instead on curbing Big Tech’s market power. In the American social contract, the user is blamed for the problem.

Why do you use your phone so much? It’s like gambling and heroin combined

Common advice for victims of mind control is to try a “digital detox”. Such is conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley that a bestselling author teaches entrepreneurs how to get users “Hooked” then urges digital addicts to have greater will power. He is an alumnus of Persuasive Technology.

Hong Kong can ill-afford to copy the exploitative aspects of this social contract. Excessive screen time magnifies societal stressors – abhorrently small living spaces, protracted pandemic restrictions, distrust of government, to name but a few.

A sign reminds visitors to observe social distancing measures at this year’s Hong Kong Book Fair, held amid the Covid-19 pandemic, on July 14. Photo: Bloomberg

For the youth, dopamine-fuelled social media plays havoc with self-esteem and social development in a notoriously stressful education system. Children reported a 10-percentage-point higher rate of depression compared to the international average. The stigma against seeking help means mental torment goes largely unaddressed.

Policymakers should use economic incentives to moderate screen time. Data restrictions could be considered during vulnerable periods such as midnight to 6am when loneliness and sleep deprivation are highest. Warning labels, training courses and even licences could be required.

The app store need not be a free-for-all. It should be regulated like any other market containing potentially harmful products. Advertising should also be restricted to drive business models away from monetising attention. If people love social media, they could be made to pay for it. France banned mobile phones during the school day. Could Hong Kong do the same?

The Department of Health should steer healthy habits that enhance human relationships and social cohesion. Employers could be encouraged to reform their policies to reduce off-hours mobile communication.

Young people use their mobile phones in Nice, southern France, in July 2018. The French Parliament has voted to ban mobile phones and related devices in schools and colleges. Photo: EPA-EFE
To support stress reduction and build community, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department could designate mobile-free zones that foster human interaction. The MTR could do this in designated carriages. These are not radical ideas. They would support the government’s “Shall We Talk” initiative, which ironically relies on social media and videos of pop stars.

Digital addiction and mind control are not inevitable. They are outcomes of a great psychological experiment thrust upon us by global technology companies. Policymakers must break free from legacy technology narratives.

More, faster, always-on connectivity is not better. It is irrational to expect users of addictive products to moderate their own behaviour. Putting public health at the forefront of technology policy would be true innovation.

The complex web of socio-economic contributors to mental health issues cannot be unravelled overnight. Protecting ourselves from the manipulative design of our devices can. It starts by accepting the dangers of mind control and acting to prioritise mental health.

Eric Stryson is managing director of the Global Institute For Tomorrow