Law in the Internet Society

Scrolling and Mental Health

-- By YunHsuanKao - 11 Dec 2021

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.

Or the other way around. Going from the correlation to any mode of causation isn't possible this way.

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 the effects it has on our dopamine circuit. In The Molecule of More, the author explained that dopamine responded not to reward but to reward prediction error, which generally means that when something unexpectedly good happens, dopamine releases. By creating a link between notifications and rewards, social media platforms create the urge for users to check in from time to time to collect the reward. Furthermore, Instagram utilizes techniques such as delaying likes to give a burst of likes at a time. To get the most dopamine out of its users.

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

Instagram is raising its standard for protecting teens by providing more parental control tools, a more restrictive explore page, and a daily time limit feature. Tik Tok is providing mental health resources to its users. Snapchat launched a mental health initiative. Nearly all of the social media platforms are doing something to mitigate the harm the research and papers bring to their business. But when the problem isn’t how to deal with mental health issues that were created by social media, the problem is social media itself, the problem is the generation of youth craving a way to escape anxiety and the dopamine circuit being set to expect reward from interacting with apps. These changes will not be able to solve the problem.

Personally, I have fallen deep into the habit of scrolling to fill in every moment of my life. My attention was constantly filled with podcasts, short videos, and all kinds of feeds. The first step I took to counter the problem is not bringing my phone everywhere I went. For example, I went on walks without my phone to take photos, listen to podcasts, and without checking social media every ten minutes. I am forced to live with my thoughts. I started to think about my to-do lists, reflected on my life, and contemplated on what really is essential to me and what is not. It’s a liberating experience to live without the distraction and miraculously, I do not feel anxious at all. The second step I plan to take is to figure out what is essential to me by experimenting. Do I need the apps to stay in touch with friends? Do I need to post updates on my life to not be forgotten? I aim to narrow down on what is truly essential to me.

I don't understand what the supposed neurochemical determinism is doing here. My life is lived without smartassphones and your kind of social media, but that doesn't mean there isn't dopamine. There's also food in my house, but there's no binge eating to speak of. Even if your understanding of Instagram and dopamine were correct, that doesn't shed any real light on the meaning of compulsive behavior, or its treatment.

It's good to be able to go for one whole walk without a smartassphone. If I want to take pictures while I'm walking, I carry a camera. I don't need to carry a device capable of spying on me in order to listen to music if I want to. Leave the smartassphone at home one day a week, then two. Figure out what tools you actually need, and how to carry them without surveillance coming along for the ride. Remember that being alone is not the condition of not having been summoned by someone else yet. Independence produces anxiety. Convenience is the surrender of anxiety to the machine, in return for the different anxieties the machine induces. The loss is of independence. You write of it abstractly, as though that were not invaluable in itself.

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r2 - 04 Jan 2022 - 19:52:36 - EbenMoglen
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