The impact of doomscrolling on mental health: 'Technology shapes user behaviour'

Rhodri Marsden investigates how the 'infinite scroll' impacts our mental health and if ethical design is possible

Young woman sitting cafe and checking social media or e-mail on digital tablet. Getty Images
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Digital information never stops. As we scan our phones, tablets and laptops for updates on everything from international news to our friends' selfies, there is one thing we know for sure: there will always be more appearing at the bottom. But many of us forget that the supply is inexhaustible, and we keep going regardless.

The effect that this overconsumption can have on our mental health is becoming ever clearer, but the blame is generally placed either on algorithms for serving up compelling titbits, or ourselves for failing to resist temptation. One factor is often overlooked, though: the scrolling mechanism itself.

The so-called "infinite scroll", which enhances the ability of platforms to push boundless information our way, has been derided for being so addictive. The recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, which explores the darker effects of social media, prominently features Aza Raskin, who invented the infinite scroll in 2006. Now more of a technology ethicist, he has publicly apologised for creating it, estimating that it "wastes about 200,000 lifetimes per day".

The notion that such a simple software mechanism could have such detrimental effects is only starting to be widely understood, says Cennydd Bowles of NowNext, a British ethical design studio. "There's a book called Don't Make Me Think [by engineer Steve Krug] that has been seen as the Bible of user-centred design," he says. "It's all about taking friction away from users. Don't stress them out with things they don't need to worry about. But recently we're starting to realise that this approach can come with some unpleasant side effects. Sometimes the user should be able to ask: 'Actually, is this a good thing that I'm doing?'"

Cennydd Bowles of NowNext says the effects of infinite scrolling. Cennydd Bowles
Cennydd Bowles of NowNext says the effects of infinite scrolling. Cennydd Bowles

Research by the psychology department at the University of British Columbia into Facebook usage, published earlier this month, suggests that passive consumption encouraged by infinite scrolling is indeed a contributory factor to poor mental health. The study found that checking the news feed was the Facebook feature people reached for most often, and the one with the most pronounced negative effect on well-being.

Derrick Wirtz, the professor behind the study, also noted that such effects have been particularly pronounced during the Covid-19 pandemic. The word "doomscrolling" (Merriam-Webster dictionary cited it as a "word to watch" in April) came to prominence this year, colourfully describing the act of consuming enormous amounts of bad news that appears to be never-ending.

For a long time the industry has been clinging to the idea that their tools are neutral, and if we use them unhealthily then it's our fault. But the way these things are designed actually reduces our control, our agency.

Our compulsion to seek out such information is, academics tell us, rooted in deep instinct. Negative news has, at least in theory, a strong link to our survival. We feel the need to consume it to be properly prepared for any consequences. This, combined with the so-called “mean world syndrome” – the belief that things are worse than they actually are – makes our hunger for information inevitable. Algorithms learn from this behaviour and serve up an evermore concentrated diet, while the companies that provide it to us – most notably Facebook and Twitter – thrive. There is little incentive for them to stop us scrolling.

"For a long time the industry has been clinging to the idea that their tools are neutral, and if we use them unhealthily then it's our fault," says Bowles. "But the way these things are designed actually reduces our control, our agency. Technology does shape user behaviour. Companies prioritise engagement in such a way that they intentionally manipulate user behaviour to achieve that goal."

The successors to infinite scroll can be found on all kinds of other platforms, including YouTube and Netflix, where “up next” videos, deemed by the algorithm to be most appropriate, start playing before we’ve finished mentally processing the previous one.

Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix, perhaps put it most candidly in a call with investors back in 2017. “We’re competing with sleep,” he said. Netflix will never tell you that it’s time to stop watching.

"There's not a whole lot of consideration given to whether this kind of thing is healthy," says Bowles. "Companies don't really care, because they're not incentivised to care." In 2018, Instagram looked as if it might be about to care. It introduced a message, "You're All Caught Up", a rare signal to us that our scrolling might be over for the time being. Today, however, when you've reached the end of your feed, a new set of "Suggested Posts" appears, encouraging you to get going again. But did that message represent a glimmer of recognition that things need to change?

“Companies are starting to understand the toxicity building around their brands,” says Bowles. “But also they’ve got to report to investors and tell them that their engagement statistics are up this quarter.”

Ethical design is possible – introducing friction into the system by asking us if we want to continue, by reminding us how long we’ve spent on the platform, by limiting encouragement to follow new sources. But with little corporate appetite for such change, one American politician, Josh Hawley, drafted a Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Bill (Smart), which would, among other things, ban the infinite scroll.

The likely success of such proposals is hotly disputed, but for our part, we can take steps to use social media more wisely, set aside our devices and become aware of the tricks being used to steal our time. But Bowles acknowledges that the challenge facing us is considerable.

“The fine line between very good design and exploitative, manipulative design is very tricky to trace.”