Why You Can’t Stop Scrolling

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! 

Why Every College Student should Brain Dump

If you had approached me in college and said I need to “dump my brain,” I probably would have thought you misspoke. I’d think, “What kind of psycho believes it’s okay to let things leak out of their brain during finals? The goal of this place is to literally stuff your brain with as much as it can handle, and then some. Do they not understand how college works?”

Yeah, I was a hot mess during finals week. I’m usually a lot nicer than that, but having your thoughts, worries and to-dos swimming around in a constant swirl during two weeks can do a lot to a person. However, Brain Dumping really can change that. It is an activity that will help you keep everything intact, while also giving your brain a breather and making things more organized. Lucky for me I was open to this weird idea and it is largely credited for keeping me sane during college.

I’m not going to pretend to know the science behind why it works, but let’s just say that “brain dumping” often can help you store more information over time- just in a more efficient way. The object of the activity is to clear your mind of all the to-dos and random information you have floating around and to jot them on paper. It renews your focus, gives your brain a break and allows you to start fresh.

This is a great exercise to do when feeling anxious, stressed or scatter-brained (a feeling that may be vaguely familiar to college students). Honestly, I think it’s a good practice to set in place once a week regardless. Even if you are not going through a stressful time in your life, it’s interesting to see what your brain throws on the paper.

How does it work?

Brain Dumping is as easy and as hard as jotting down every single thought that comes to mind for a span of ten minutes.

Every. Little. Thing.

Think this won’t take ten minutes? You will be surprised to find your hand cramping up when you really get going. Some find it challenging to get started in the beginning, especially if you are not used to journaling or throwing your thoughts on paper. But like anything else, practice makes perfect.

Keep in mind that you are not aiming for full sentences or even a logical order of ideas. I don’t recommend doing this in a neat, journal-y way at all. I typically go for bullet points because I’m trying to jot as many things down as possible within ten minutes. Nothing has to make sense or flow together, it just has to make it’s way onto the sheet. No one else is going to see this paper so it doesn’t need to be pretty by any means, just neat enough for you to read it.

Once your ten minutes are up and you’ve jotted down all you can, you do not have to go any further with this exercise if you choose. Especially if you are pressed for time, the Brain Dump in of itself will provide you with the benefits mentioned above. However, I have found adding a few extra steps makes me feel more at ease and in control.

What comes next?

It helps if after you jot everything down you can forget about the paper for a little while. Let your brain enjoy the heavy load being lifted and go for a quick walk around the block. if you want to give meditating a go this would be the perfect time. The difficult task of clearing you mind has already been done for you!

When I come back to my paper I like to re-read everything I wrote down, looking for any themes in my thoughts. Perhaps you have an exam coming up so a lot of your thoughts are surrounding your fears and to-dos regarding it. Maybe there is a theme or two on the list that surprised you. I know I’ve been caught off guard by things I’ve written down- almost as if I’m unaware of what my brain has been chewing on lately.

Practical uses

For example, maybe I wrote a lot about my prayer life and how I don’t feel I’ve been measuring up lately. What can I do today, however small, to get myself back on track with this? Since I am a journal-er by nature, maybe I need to set aside some time to flesh out these thoughts in a journal entry, or talk about it with a friend.

It’s likely you will find a lot of little tasks that need to be done that found their way onto the paper. Now is a great time to get a formal to-do list started on another sheet of paper. There’s no need for your brain to have to remember it all! This whole process is just about making things simpler for you. We’ve just taken this huge burden off of our brain, let’s not just dump it all back in!

The last step, however optional, is by far my favorite. Once I have gleaned all the information and insights I can out of my Brain Dump, I take the paper and crumble it up (or tear it apart, whichever is more satisfying at the time) and I throw it away. There is nothing more freeing than disposing of all your worries and moving on. Now you have a clear mind, an action plan for any concerns that came up and a single sheet with all of your to-dos. Hear that? it’s your brain breathing a sigh of relief.