While working on a project, you glance down at your phone. Instead of ignoring it, you think to yourself: It’s only 7:00 pm, I can take a break. You open Instagram. You open TikTok. You open something. You like the first video, then the second. Not the third, but maybe the fourth. Fifth. Sixth. Seventh. Seventeenth. Seventieth. You look up from your phone to your laptop, where your cursor has sat idle for the last two and a half hours, and wonder: What happened?
If you use social media, you’ve probably experienced it: hours spent scrolling mindlessly on an app you resent but continue to use. I’m no exception. After years of using TikTok, I got sick of the algorithms and the advertising. I deleted it, thinking that it would solve my issue, only to continue my scrolling on Instagram instead. In fact, just writing this paragraph I’ve already checked my phone. Is it psychology? Software? Society? Why do I check my phone even when I know I shouldn’t?
I thought maybe it was just me. Maybe I just had a social media ‘addiction.’ But, talking with classmates, I realized I’m far from the only one who’s caught themselves getting distracted by social media from time to time—or all the time. For Elizabeth Walent (‘23), if her phone isn’t hidden in her backpack, she runs the risk of getting distracted during class. Doing homework, she says, “I’ll try to put my phone away from me so that it’s not within arm’s reach.”
I’ve always struggled with time management and procrastination, and having my phone on my desk while doing homework doesn’t help that issue. When I first started using Instagram, it was simply a way to see what my friends were up to. Now when I open the app it’s hard to set my phone down again, and I rarely see a post from someone I actually know. Just one more post turns into just ten more minutes, which turns into a sleepless night and overdue schoolwork.
Why Does It Happen?
That distraction wouldn’t be so much of an issue if social media platforms weren’t so good at keeping you engaged after you start scrolling. I spoke with Dr. Joan Glutting, professor of clinical psychology at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), to try and figure out why my peers and I couldn’t keep our eyes off social media. According to Glutting, the reason is that “social media works just like gambling.” Behaviorism—the study of why humans do what they do—outlines that humans do things for the outcomes, or rewards, of those things. Social media presents you with content that you’re interested in the same way that a teacher may present you with candy when you decide to answer a question in class.
Social media keeps us engaged by making us gamble. However, rather than money, we gamble our time. You don’t know if the next post you’ll see will be interesting or rewarding to you, but you scroll anyways because you know that feeling of reward—even the tiniest burst of dopamine—will show up eventually. “You don’t know when you’re going to get the thing, you don’t know how many times you have to respond before you get the thing, which makes you respond a lot. People who run casinos know this,” says Glutting. Although there is no medical definition for a social media addiction, gambling addictions are very real.
How Does It Happen?
This concept is programmed into social media platforms. Cathi Stetson, computer science teacher at Oyster River High School (ORHS), says social media platforms save “your search history and [learn] your likes and your interests, and it creates a program that pushes out the information that you like to see.” Platforms then use what they learn about you to keep you engaged in the content that you’re viewing. They keep you engaged long enough for you to see advertisements, generating revenue for the company while you scroll. Once an app’s algorithm has developed a profile of your interests, learned what you’re more likely to keep watching, and learned how long you’re willing to scroll, the app is able to keep you engaged for longer and longer.
This personalization drives doomscrolling. Normally associated with negative news media, doomscrolling refers to a mindless and prolonged intake of information on social media. According to Glutting, “the data is clear that most [social media] makes people feel anxious and uncomfortable.” Yet many people, including myself, still scroll away.
Your social media feed is meant to keep you engaged, and negative information does just that. Content meant to make you upset, angry, discontent, or depressed is more likely to spark a reaction from you than positive and uplifting content, and your reaction online consequently teaches social media platforms to show you more negative information. This cycle creates a very engaging and very personal feed of information, mixing posts from news organizations, influencers, your friends and family, and advertisers in a way that you might not even notice. As a result, you may find yourself doomscrolling for hours on end as social media algorithms find better and better ways to keep you watching.
As it turns out, doomscrolling affects more people than just teenagers. Stetson admits to falling asleep watching TikTok some nights. Glutting deleted Facebook, but still sometimes checks her husband’s account despite her resentment of the platform. Despite their knowledge of why social media is so effective at keeping us engaged, they still found themselves drawn to the platforms.
What Are the Impacts?
Doomscrolling fuels the fire of procrastination. In the short-term, scrolling on social media may be an easy escape from an assignment or other stress-inducing responsibility. However, using social media instead of doing work just makes the issue bigger for your future self, creating long-term stress in exchange for short-term pleasure.
Using social media to escape goes beyond just escaping responsibility. According to Glutting, “It’s a way in which people avoid awkward moments, being alone, social anxiety. So, it becomes really rewarding to check your texts instead of dealing with the fact that you might have to do something uncomfortable, like saying, ‘hey, can I sit with you for lunch?’ or whatever it is you are avoiding.”
Using social media to avoid responsibility, connection, anxiety, or anything for that matter, creates unhealthy habits. “It’s remarkably rewarding in the short run. In the long run, […] it just makes everything worse,” says Glutting.
I’ve noticed in my own life that the biggest concern of social media is constant accessibility. The biggest distraction in my life lives in my pocket. As someone who both procrastinates too much and stresses too much, being constantly exposed to applications that know exactly how to distract me, and, more importantly, how to keep me distracted, is incredibly harmful.
Moreover, the bombardment of information that social media provides at any given time is mind-numbing. “It’s relentless, right? It used to be that you’d go to school, whatever interactions you had, you went home, you hung out with whomever you wanted to hang out with, talked on the phone. But now, it is this twenty-four-hours-a-day to be socially engaged with people,” says Glutting. Constant social interaction, paired with the emotional overload of negative news, is debilitating.
Plus, despite providing exposure to social interaction twenty-four hours a day, social media actually distances communication. There’s no interpersonal, face-to-face connection when you like a TikTok or Instagram post, or when you send a Snapchat or text message. That lack of direct interpersonal interaction fosters loneliness and social anxiety.
What Can We Do?
By curating the ways that we use social media, we can mitigate the effects it has. I’ve started by setting a daily time limit on Instagram and by charging my phone on my desk—rather than my nightstand—when I’m sleeping at night. This prevents me from doomscrolling for hours on end, especially before going to sleep at night (with the added benefit of forcing me to get up out of bed to shut my alarm off in the morning), and subsequently helps prevent me from procrastinating by using social media.
Another good step is curating the social media platforms you use—and how you use them—which can help improve the impacts social media has on your mental health. For example, you could try getting news from trusted, unbiased journalists outside of social media, helping alleviate the confirmation bias and negativity commonly found on social media platforms in an effort to make you react to something. Another example is, instead of Instagram, using an app like VSCO for sharing and viewing photography. VSCO has no advertising or news media, its posts are shown in a strictly chronological order, and only you can see who likes your posts, all of which help eliminate any unneeded exposure to an algorithm’s negative, engagement-driven curation of information.
Lastly, taking a break from social media can help you realize how it affects you. If you’ve used a certain platform daily for months, try taking a few days off. See how you feel, and then decide whether to continue using the software. Being mindful of the ways that social media impacts you can help you figure out which platforms are worth using—and which aren’t—and allows you to curate your own experience on social media, rather than letting social media companies curate it for you.
So, the next time you’re doing homework and reach for your phone, realize that taking a short break on social media may not be worth it. “It’s a tricky thing,” says Glutting, “but I think it’s really important that we all think about what we’re doing a little more, rather than just doing it.”
– Justin Partis