It is no secret to those close to me that I am very outspoken about the negative usage of social media and its effects on mental health. I do not pretend to be free of its clutches either, recognising the necessity for it in modern society—although even the validity of this point could be questioned.
As a software engineer, it’s important to me that I try to avoid some of the dark patterns employed by big social media, with the goal of creating more honest and ‘human’ products. I often spend time thinking about different features which may go overlooked in daily usage of social media but have a huge impact on factors that may contribute to a detriment in mental health.
Virtually all social media is free to use, so instead users pay with their data—or more appropriately, they pay with their attention. Companies know this, and most big platforms are excellently designed to cater to it. For example, ask a frequent user of TikTok what they do before they sleep and after they wake up; anecdotally I find that most people say that they spend up to an hour of their time scrolling their feed before sleeping or getting out of bed.
I’m often met with puzzled looks when I tell people that I think infinite scrolling should have severely limited usage in social media, or even be banned from home feeds. Understandably so, as the effect of such a feature seems minor; but there are some hidden implications that I feel greatly contribute to a highly addictive experience.
No platform wants to send users away at any point. Announcing that a user should close their app or consider doing something else seems foolish because the user’s attention, which has been so hard to gain, is now immediately lost. Infinite scrolling has been seemingly widely adopted for this point alone.
The user is never encouraged to stop or presented with a point at which they have to make the decision to keep going. With infinite scrolling, the decision is constantly made for them by the app in use. This behaviour could be likened to Netflix automatically continuing to the next episode; again, the app makes the decision to continue on behalf of the user, unless actions are taken otherwise.
Compare this to pagination: at the end of a page, a user must make the conscious decision to continue to the next page or stop browsing and close the app. Whilst it has not explicitly asked if the user wants to stop, the choice is weighted towards the user rather than the app because they have to carry out an action to continue.
Infinite scrolling feeds offer highly curated content, often powered by some brilliantly designed algorithms and models that ensure a user remains engaged throughout their experience. As amazing as these are, they remove any form of an ‘end goal’—a point at which the user may feel satisfied. It can be very easy to scroll through social media for hours on end without your brain sensing that something has been achieved, so there is no real feeling of accomplishment or satisfaction.
This lack of satisfaction and accomplishment is further exacerbated by the fact that scrolling through an app or website takes very little effort at all—but the rewards in terms of dopamine can be very high. A user is constantly being spoon-fed content without the need to take any action and is constantly being bombarded with it as they continue to scroll effortlessly.
But as with most high dopamine, low effort activities, the elusive feeling of satisfaction becomes harder and harder to achieve. So what does the average user do? They keep scrolling.
This encapsulates some of the reasons why I feel that infinite scrolling contributes to a dangerously addictive social media experience. Of course, the responsibility ultimately falls to the end-user in how they moderate their usage of social platforms; but I do feel that platforms need to be held more responsible for these things. This is just one example of numerous features that may seem harmless on the surface, yet have large contributions to making social media an extremely addictive task if not approached diligently—often the case for those who are younger.