- Scrolling through content without end has implications for mental health and well-being, numerous studies show.
- “Infinite scroll” is likened to a virtual slot machine — which offers dopamine-inducing variable rewards, thereby making it hyper-addictive.
- Know when to use it, when to avoid it and how to break free.
It’s a simple, innocuous-sounding "plug-in". But this software has already changed — and continues to change — the lives of millions, perhaps hundreds of silent millions, especially children.
It has turned the use of social media into a global pre-occupation. Or, more precisely, a global addiction.
Infinite scroll is harmlessly defined as a “service” and it follows us everywhere. Well, it's not just a innocent service provider.
What is it?
It’s a feature that allows us to continuously scroll down a page, removing any need to press “refresh” or hit a “next page” button.
This plug-in, and the extended screen time it spawns for users, has the world at its feet. Yes, it has known benefits: it reduces interruptions, cuts interaction cost, and is perfect for mobile devices.
It is the most-used plug-in on websites and apps, thus enabling content pre-defined by an algorithm to “stream” constantly to our brain.
When it came out, many user interface designers considered it heaven-sent. Now many people, including Aza Raskin himself, credited as its inventor, advise extra caution.
Why? Amid a phenomenal dopamine-inducing kick with which infinite scroll hacks our brains, recent studies are piling up to show its ugly head.
For one, from being an extremely helpful tool for web developers, infinite scroll has turned into a time suck. From helping cut interaction costs, it’s become an invisible finger that fuels social comparison, triggers anxiety and information overload.
How it gets us hooked
Today, these agents of instant gratification continue to invade minds in every nook and cranny of the globe, especially the youngsters, researchers warn.
This deadly scroll, it turns out, allows people quick access to a variety of rewards.
An article in Psychology Today states: “Like a loose slot machine, the infinite scroll gives users fast access to variable rewards. Interestingly, our brain isn't wired to seek pleasure alone. In fact, much of our motivation comes from alleviating the pain of desire.
The negative effects, researchers warned, can be particularly dangerous for vulnerable populations, such as children and teenagers, as well as people with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Here’s the freaky part: Even as mindless scrolling wastes our time, it also increases our dependency on dopamine — those “happy cells” — or neurotransmitters released in our brain whenever we feel motivated, elated or aroused.
Dopamine levels spike when we're just about to find reward. It plummets after we receive it. When dopamine levels drop, we naturally crave for it. Who doesn’t want to be happy?
Who invented it?
One of my lessons from infinite scroll: that optimising something for ease-of-use does not mean best for the user or humanity
He is a co-chairing member of the World Economic Forum’s Global AI Counsel, helped found Mozilla Labs, in addition to being named FastCompany’s Master of Design, and listed on Forbes and Inc Magazines 30-under-30.
Raskin said he regrets what his invention has done to society, as he never could have predicted the consequences.
In 2019, Raskin told The Times: “One of my lessons from infinite scroll: that optimising something for ease-of-use does not mean best for the user or humanity.”
What do the latest studies on infinite scroll show?
Research on the effects of infinite scroll on mental health and well-being is ongoing, but here are some of the latest studies on the topic:
A study published in 2021 in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that the use of infinite scroll and other social media features that prioritise engagement over user well-being can have negative effects on mental health, particularly for young people.
A follow-up study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2022 found that the use of social media — particularly the use of infinite scroll — was associated with increased symptoms of depression and anxiety in adolescents. The study also found that spending time outdoors and engaging in physical activity were protective factors against these negative effects.
Also, a 2022 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that users who engage in mindful scrolling — or intentionally regulating their social media use to avoid the negative effects of infinite scroll — had better mental health outcomes than those who did not practice mindful scrolling.
• BEWARE: Since the task of controlling children’s tech use is nearly impossible, Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and her colleagues advise parents to zero in on the activities that appear to be the most harmful — especially social media. In general, social media has a stronger link to mental health problems than “screen time”.
• EXPERT ADVICE: The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends a maximum of one hour of “high-quality” programming for children under six years of age. Thereafter, parents are advised to place consistent restrictions on screen consumption and encourage screen-free time by doing more physical activities as a family.
• FOR CHILDREN UP TO AGE OF 2: The Canadian Association of Optometrists and the Canadian Ophthalmological Society, prescribe that children up to the age of two should not use screens at all — with the rare exception of video-chatting along with a parent.
• FOR CHILDREN BETWEEN 2 AND 5: Screen time should be restricted to one hour every day. This recommendation matches the guidelines released by the Canadian Paediatric Society.
• FOR CHILDREN AGES 6-18: parents must limit their exposure to digital screens to not more than two hours a day.
• AN HOUR BEFORE BEDTIME: Electronic screens should not be used at all in the hour before bedtime.
• BLUE LIGHT: It is known that screens of gadgets release a blue light, which suppresses the production of the hormone, melatonin, which is key in controlling the wake-sleep cycle, or the circadian rhythm, of the body.
• STIMULANT: The devices stimulate the brain and trigger emotional and hormonal responses such as increased adrenalin. This, in turn, keeps the brain alert and makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. This ultimately affects the brain and eye development in children. https://gulfnews.com/1.85785391
How to avoid falling into the infinite scroll trap
Prioritise activities that promote well-being, such as spending time outdoors and engaging in physical activity.
Step 1: Set healthy boundaries.
Set limits on the amount of time you spend on social media. Take conscious breaks from scrolling. Impose restrictions on how much time you spend online, particularly on social.
Step 2: Practice being mindful.
Do you aimlessly scroll without giving it any thought? Knowing the cause can frequently assist in breaking the habit. This is a good chance to experience the many advantages of mindfulness training. Because mindfulness places a strong emphasis on paying attention consciously (and purposefully diverting attention), it may help us avoid abusing the scroll.
Step 3: Focus on your goal.
Minimise the amount and kind of information you take in. Focus on your goal, finish the task you set out to perform, then put down your phone / laptop.
Step 4: Cut it at the source.
Disable notifications. Instead of filtering through posts you don’t care about to get to those you do, only follow people and groups whose posts are truly meaningful to you.
Step 5. Use helpful tools.
You may add the “Pause” extension to prevent particular websites from appearing, or remove apps entirely from your phone. Know that it may take time to end the cycle of addiction.
Or you may use an app like “Freedom”. With its simple tools, it gives you a lot more control over infinite scrolling. Build several Blocklists for various sessions using this app. You can set time limits on specific websites, and sync your sessions across other devices.
Step 6: Don’t let it ruin your life.
If social media use is interfering with daily life or causing distress, it’s time to take action. It may also be advisable to seek help from mental health professionals.
Step 7: Delete social media
This is an extreme measure. In practice, it may work for some to get off social media completely. Buying a “dumb” phone is another. This may not be desirable for most, given today's desireability of interconnectedness. But real change begins with a keen awareness of a problem, the reasons for it, the ways around it, and the will to take the first step.
- Click the three dots menu (top right corner) > “Settings”
- On the left-side menu click “Privacy and security” > Choose “Site settings”
- From a Home screen on your iPhone, navigate: > Settings
- Safari > Advanced (bottom of options)
- Open a new web browser > Tap the three-dots icon (top right).
• It’s a technique psychologists find most addictive of all.
• In academic circles, it’s formally known as “variable-ratio reinforcement” or “variable-ratio schedule”.
• It’s a reinforcement technique where a behaviour is reinforced after a random number of responses.
• This kind of schedule results in high, steady rates of response. Organisms become persistent in responding because of the hope that the next response might be one needed to receive “reinforcement” (i.e. the desired content, or outcome).
• The way this technique is used in highly addictive games and infinite scroll is the same: the rewards are not uniform.
• You win — but only sometimes. The variability is controlled by the maker (via an algorithm seemingly governed by randomness).
• If you always win (in which case, it’s “continuous reinforcement”) it becomes boring and you drop it.
• Knowing this to be the case with infinite scroll, is good. Even better, perhaps, is if we can start to confront its sinister brain-wasting effect, and push it back— and push hard — for our own good.