The Psychology of Scrolling: Rethinking Our Relationship with Social Media

Food for Thought

Social media usage comes up frequently among my friends as a topic. The question is usually framed as how to reduce time spent, but in my mind, a more interesting question is why people end up feeling bad after hours of social media use.

People are glued to social media apps for diverse reasons. Some are glued to specific types of news stories, particularly scary ones. Some are politically engaged, not only consuming content but also debating. Some are fixated on mesmerizing video footage, like restoration projects, cow hoof trimming, NPC, ASMR, etc. Some indulge in shopping. Some don’t consume much content shared by others, only looking for reactions to their own content. Since these reasons do not share one essential feature in common, I do not feel analyzing their activities would yield fruitful insights, so I focus on the origin of guilt.

I believe the core issue is control; they feel guilty about not being in control of their behavior, and they assume the solution is to regain control.

We often bemoan the manipulative algorithms of social media platforms designed to monopolize our attention. Yet, our own minds operate on algorithms beyond our control. If you sit still on your couch and observe your thoughts, you’ll notice a flux of unbidden thoughts, reminiscent of an Instagram feed, each spawning visceral emotional responses, be it stress-inducing cortisol spikes or the dopamine rush from fantasized scenarios.

Some despise social media algorithms because their experience echoes the eerie feeling that someone else is controlling their thoughts, even though it’s their own algorithms that they cannot control.

The true battleground for control lies within our own minds. The AI-powered algorithms employed by social media are but mirrors of our cognitive processes. This raises the pivotal question of whether it’s feasible to govern our thoughts. In attempting to do so, one might find that efforts to exert control only amplify the cacophony of mental chatter. So, this is what I propose: relinquish the quest for control and instead adopt a posture of detached observation as we navigate through the endless feed of social media posts and our own thoughts.