Law in the Internet Society

Scrolling and Mental Health

-- By YunHsuanKao - 9 Jan 2022

The Problem

Scrolling through the tiny screen that is our phone is creating increasingly more damage to our mental health. Leaked documents from Facebooks’ own research showed that teenagers’ suicidal thoughts can be traced back to Instagram. Instagram is not the only problem, a 2018 study showed connections between the hours spent using social media and mental health indicators, suggesting that the more time you spent on social media, the more likely you feel distressed, lonely, and anxious. Moreover, a study in 2021 that examined the connection between suicide and screen time further confirmed girls who are exposed to social media for more than 2 hours a day from their early adolescence will have increased suicide risk in adulthood.

The scale of the problem is exceedingly big too. Research showed that 69% of adults and 81% of teens in the US and 57.6% of the global population engage in social media. It is not surprising that Facebook has become the 3rd most visited website in the world, gathering approximately 1.91 billion daily users. All those users are exposing themself to a higher risk of mental health problems.

Research aside, I have been an avid user of social media (especially Instagram). I spent hundreds of hours curating my feed, posting stories, and scrolling through others’ posts. I certainly felt the unsatisfying hole in my heart after endless scrolling well into the night, the FOMO after seeing photos of friends hanging out, or even the feeling of inadequacy and regret after wasting too much time on it rather than being productive, but all these negative emotions and side effects didn’t stop me from scrolling. Even when I am writing this paper, I can’t resist the urge to tap on my phone screen to check notifications, when there obviously isn’t any. What is the force behind this urge? What is driving me and millions of others to go on a platform that is damaging to our mental health on a daily basis?

The Urge

One reason social media is addicting is because of how it creates a habit association between contexts and responses. In Psychology of Habits, scientists showed that when experiencing rewards, our neural systems release dopamine that helps to form the habit associations mentioned above. In other words, by offering rewards, social media strengthened the users’ habit of using it. This habit association then leads to users’ continued engagement in the apps and services, which in turn meet social media’s business goals.

On the question of what rewards can social media offer its users. Research showed that users turn to Snapchat for passing time, sharing problems, and improving social knowledge, users turn to Instagram for showing affection, following fashion, and demonstrating sociability, and users turn to Twitter for rewarding tips for their work and a real-time audience for brief thoughts. These “rewards” are what the users think they will get after interacting with the apps and services.

Another method that social media often employs is what the scientists called “context cues”. These cues can automatically trigger social media use, cues including design feature cues, mood cues, and technology cues. For example, mood cues happen when one reaches for their phone out of stress, boredom, or procrastinating. Design feature cues such as Facebook’s endless feeds, Youtube and Netflix’s automatic play of next video, all intentional designs to eliminate “stopping cues”. The combination of rewarding users and integrating context cues enabled social media to grab its users’ minds and to make itself an integral part of million’s daily life.

Another reason is the illusion of “convenience” that social media and smartphones present. As Professor Moglen suggested, what we perceive as convenience is actually the transferring of our anxiety to the machine. When I think about why I use social media, my first thought is always because of the convenience. I can connect with friends, express myself in photos, and keep in touch with what's happening. This is all true, but none of the above requires “social media” to achieve. If my dad that went to college in the 1980s can stay in touch with his college roommates, I certainly don’t need Instagram and Facebook to do that. The real urge to scroll comes from the anxiety loop that strengthens itself with every scroll. When I deliver my anxiety to the machine or app, either in the form of mindless scrolling, binging-watching Tik Tok, or reading algorithm-curated news feeds, I often find that the more I consume, the more anxious I become. And the more anxious I become, the more I desire to scroll. It’s like a perfect trap.

The Solution

One way to fix the social media’s habit association problem might be leveraging regulation to force the services and apps to eliminate triggering cues and add in more stopping cues. But the technicality and effectiveness of such changes are vastly unknown. A recent study has shown that when Facebook made a platform design change affecting its context cues in 2008, the post rate of habitual users decreased. Suggesting the effectiveness of regulating context cues.

On a personal level, in the first draft, I started taking charge of my habit of mindless scrolling. I continued on the journey from two perspectives. First, I strived to reduce my phone screen time because I noticed that the phone is not only more addicting than a computer but also less efficient. I tried not doing any work on the tiny screen and only work when I am in front of a desk with a computer. The result is freeing up my mind to engage in more thinking and learning and getting things done more efficiently. Second, I turned off notifications on my phone. Notifications are the context cues that I have control over to turn it off. The journey forward isn’t trying to disconnect from the Net, but is learning how to take control of the Net and utilize it to its full potential.

An excellent improvement. You strengthened the research and made practical steps to improve your technologies' relationship to the needs of your mind. Taken together these are two powerful personal investigations of the extent to which technology that supports rather than defeats your mental functioning and improves your privacy is immediately to hand, not just for you but for others around you. Once again, I hope you will fin d somewhere to publish your essay in Chinese for Taiwanese readers.

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r4 - 06 Feb 2022 - 14:45:45 - EbenMoglen
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