We’ve all seen the articles and research supporting the idea that social media consumption can lead to depression and anxiety. I think most of us understand that social media in of itself isn’t evil. It’s the way we use it (in excess) that causes us trouble. It’s one thing to check it every now and again, but not being able to fall asleep because you are scrolling endlessly through pointless information is a sign of an addiction.
It’s no surprise that younger generations are becoming addicted and spending hours of their day glued to screens. With the prevalence of smart phones, it’s easier than ever to pick up your phone during the idle moments of life and start scrolling through your Instagram feed. Sometimes I catch myself doing this before I even realize it’s happening.
You know it’s bad for you, and you may have even tried limiting the amount of time you spend on these sites. But have you ever stopped to think why it’s so hard to stop scrolling once you start? Turns out, there’s actually a scientific reason for this habit. It’s the absence of “stopping cues” on almost any social media platform these days.
What is a stopping cue?
A stopping cue is basically what it sounds like. A cue that tells your brain to stop. It’s almost like little alarm bell going off in your head telling you that it’s time to move on to something else. These cues can be very obvious and natural. When eating, for example, you stomach tells your brain that it’s full so you know to stop. Your body could also tell you to stop exercising if you’ve done too much by having a body part scream out in pain.
There are also stopping cues in the way we consume literature. While reading a book, each chapter can serve as a way to break up the material and let you choose to come back later if you’d like. Newspapers are broken down into stories, magazines into two-page spreads, etc. Even newer media channels have these cues sprinkled throughout. TV shows break for commercials (which is why they often try to leave the segment with a cliff-hanger so you come back), and are broken down into 30-60 minutes segments. Once your TV show has aired for the week, it’s time to stop until next week.
Social media sites are not like normal websites. They don’t have a finite ending, where you can have the satisfaction of scrolling to the bottom of the page and knowing you’ve read everything. Or going to the menu and picking a topic to focus on. Instead, each site is engineered in such a way that there is no “end.” Your newsfeed is essentially a bottomless pit. The closest you can get to an “ending” on one of these platforms is to scroll all the way to where you ended the last time you were on the site.
The people who make these sites know this and use it to their advantage. They try to suggest more friends to add so that you’ll have more statuses, tweets, pictures, etc to comb through. In order to keep you on even longer, I’ve noticed changes in the algorithms in recent years on Facebook and Instagram that make it even harder to see where you left off last.
Instead of keeping the posts in chronological order they change it around so you essentially can’t mark the last post you read and stop there. If you could do that, you wouldn’t be stuck in the black hole of Twitter for quite as long because seeing a post you’ve already read would essentially serve as a stopping cue.
Even Netflix is trying to get rid of ways you can escape it’s platform. It encourages a new trend in TV consumption called “binging” where you watch 3, 4, 5 or 10 episodes all in one run, depending on how long they are and how much time you are willing to burn. Most of the time the next episode starts almost immediately, and you have to catch it and press pause in order to prevent this. But if you’re like me and you’ve had trouble with social media and/or Netflix in the past, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Why do we need cues?
Newton’s first law of motion ties in nicely with this concept. Objects in motion will stay in motion, and objects at rest will stay at rest. Our brain is a tired, lazy beast that looks for the easy way out most of the time. It does this to prevent burnout and keep you sane, but it can be tricky when you aren’t aware of the shortcuts it’s taking.
A more familiar example of this concept is if you have an already existing habit of hitting the snooze button every morning, the day you try to avoid this will be agony. You will immediately think of a million reasons why you should stay in bed. This is your brain trying it’s best to get you to do what is easy and familiar. A person at rest will stay at rest if your brain can help it.
How does this relate to social media? Most of us by now have a habit of scrolling. We do it in the car, during our breaks at work, when we first wake up in the morning and before we go to bed. it’s something our brain has been programmed to do long ago and is happy to go along with because it requires almost zero brain power. But purposely stopping and doing something else takes work. I have a hard time thinking about something that would be easier for my brain to chew on than social media and Netflix.
Do you catch yourself thinking that you should probably stop scrolling, only to have the voice in your head say, “Oh, but just a few more minutes.” Or, my personal favorite, planning on stopping to do something productive at 8:00 pm, but looking up at 8:05 to see you missed your imaginary deadline…so you think, “Okay, no problem, I will just start at 9:00!” Your brain’s will to stop an activity on it’s own is very limited.
Creating your own cues
Stopping certain activities is a habit that you need to take time to cultivate if you are ever going to get anywhere. All you need to do is create your own stopping cues that force your brain to move on. It could mean turning your phone off an hour before bed so you don’t have the option to scroll all night. Or arranging a time to call your friend at 7:00 pm when you start watching Netflix at 6:00, so you’ll only have time for one episode.
If I am actually trying to get something done but can’t stop scrolling, I go for the pomodoro technique. This method is simply working for 25 minutes with zero distractions and then allowing yourself 5 minutes at the end to relax and browse through Pinterest if you’d like. There are a few free apps you can download that set these 25/5 minute timers for you to make it even more efficient.
When you want to limit the time you spend scrolling on your laptop specifically, there are tools built into your web browser that you can use to block yourself from distracting sites. Remember that these are just suggestions- you know best what your weaknesses are and what roadblocks you can put in the way to keep your brain from scrolling.
Because the creators of these websites know every trick in the book to keep you interested, your efforts to stop will be going against the grain. It will always be an upward battle. But once you start getting more of your free-time back and begin to feel more self aware after some time off from social media, you will never want to go back.
I will help you get started. Right here is your stopping cue: leave a quick comment on this post, then turn off your phone or close your laptop (right this moment) and get out there!