What starts as a "just a quick check-in" can morph into hours lost on endless feeds in a scrolling blackhole. The internet and social media has been cleverly designed by huge teams of experts with the goal of getting us to scroll more and spend more time online. Mindless scrolling and its grim cousin, doomscrolling, captivate our attention and devour our time, but it’s not our fault. It’s been designed to do just that.
Many of us hate the fact that we spend so much time on social media, one survey found a staggering 80% of Brits admit to mindless scrolling, averaging three hours daily glued to their screens. If you use our screen time calculator, this equates to 46 days a year and 8 years of an average lifetime. So why do we continue to mindlessly scroll? And why does scrolling feel so good, yet leave us feeling drained?
What is ‘doomscrolling’?
Doomscrolling is commonly referred to as the action of mindlessly scrolling, swiping and consuming content on social media and websites without consciously knowing we’re doing it. We can lose long periods of time by going into a somewhat mediative state of scrolling and consuming. Although regularly used to describe mindless or passive scrolling, ‘doomscrolling’ specifically refers to the compulsive desire to continuously scroll through bad news or negative content on our devices.
Social media platforms are designed to keep you online and trap you into a scrolling black hole. They provide you bite-sized, easy to consume content through a highly developed algorithm to serve you similar content, causing us to spend hours on our phones even if we don’t want to.
Slot machine theory: dopamine from unexpected rewards
Scrolling social media and websites activates the brain's reward centre by releasing dopamine, a “feel-good chemical” associated to pleasure and reward. Every like, comment, or video is a mini reward, keeping us hooked on the next potential hit. But the key thing here is that the rewards are unexpected and variable. When we encounter something novel or unexpected, like a shocking news headline or a dramatic social media post, our brain releases dopamine.
The concept of unexpected rewards is well illustrated by the analogy of a slot machine. Each time you pull the lever, you're uncertain of the outcome. This uncertainty and variable rewards (whether it's a win or interesting content) triggers a dopamine release. When we scroll through our phones, every swipe or click presents the potential for something new, keeping us engaged and continuously scrolling. Basically, we’re chasing that next dopamine hit like a hamster on a social media wheel. The last ten videos have been boring, but maybe the next one…
Fear of missing out
Fearing that you’re missing out on content, trends or news can also encourage you to repeatedly pick up your phone. The fast paced nature of social media means things change very quickly, so we feel the need to constantly check in.
Cleverly designed algorithms keep you scrolling
Tech companies are masters of manipulation. Endless feeds, autoplay videos, and those red notification dots are all carefully crafted to keep us glued to our screens. Algorithms keep you on your phone for longer by serving you content they predict you’ll like through your engagement habits. If the content feels relevant and interesting to you, not only do you continue to scroll to find more of it, you’re more likely to open your apps through the anticipation of finding something you enjoy.
Plus, the more videos you watch, the more likely you are to continue watching. One study found that watching five music videos made people 10% more likely to choose to watch an additional music video than if they only watched one video.
“People choose to continue down the rabbit hole because viewing related media “feels right” — even if it’s at odds with what they actually want to be doing, whether that’s getting work done or even just taking a break. Kaitlin Woolley from Harvard Business
What are the affects of doomscrolling?
While the occasional indulgence in an evening scroll might seem benign, consistent doomscrolling can have negative effects on our wellbeing. Excessive doomscrolling can lead to increased anxiety and stress. Sitting down and scrolling for long periods of time isn’t good for our bodies and and even cause eye strain and tech neck. Engagement with digital screens, especially before bedtime, can also disrupt sleep patterns. Over time, this habit can affect our mood, concentration, and attention spans.
7 tips to stop doomscrolling
Create phone-free zones
Dinner table or the bedroom are good places to start– designate some spaces where your phone isn’t allowed.
Set time limits
Set daily limits, schedule "scroll breaks," and use bedtime modes.
Swap scrolling for something real
Read a book, call a friend or go for a walk.
Get an alarm clock
Replace your phone with an alarm clock to remove your phone from the bedside.
Turn off notifications
When your phone lights up and notifies you, you’re more likely to open your phone and check apps. Turn off notifications for distracting apps.
Unsubscribe and unfollow
Let go of accounts that drain your energy. Follow folks who inspire, educate, and make you laugh.
Kickstart with digital detox
Remove yourself from your own space and do a digital detox to remind yourself how it feels to be offline. Or do screen free day or evening a week.
Understanding the science behind doomscrolling is the first step towards breaking the habit. By recognising the role of dopamine and the allure of unexpected rewards, we can start to implement strategies to take control of our digital consumption. Remember, mindful tech use is about balance, not deprivation. It's about making conscious choices about how we spend our time, and reclaiming control over our attention
Fancy time away from the screen?
Recharge your batteries by going off-grid for 3 days. Backed by science - you will feel more calm, relaxed and creative after your digital detox.