Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

InternetApril 19, 2022

Doomed by design: why you can’t stop scrolling

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Phone addiction is often cast as a personal failing, but how much of it is influenced by factors beyond our control? For IRL, Josie Adams explores the dark side of app design. 

How long has this article been sitting in a tab, waiting to be read? You might have read it immediately, or you might have opened it and then spent a couple of hours scrolling down the Facebook newsfeed, taking in the bright colours and remembering enough of the status updates to know vaguely what’s going on in the world. Maybe you’re sitting in your car, and you’ve opened this after 15 minutes of clicking through Instagram stories. You won’t get out of the car after you’ve spent another 10 minutes scrolling.

The phenomenon of “doomscrolling” is familiar to most of us: it’s when you open up an app like Facebook and Instagram and just keep scrolling down the endless page, unable to look away. When you’re finally snapped you out of your digital stupor, you feel horrible: guilty for the time you’ve wasted, and burdened with a host of bad news and bad takes.

Social media is hard to avoid, and harder to leave once you’re in it. The bright colours, the shiny notifications, and the bottomless feed of glossy content can feel addictive. According to former Facebook president Sean Parker, it was designed that way. Being chronically online is often regarded as a failing of the younger generations. We simply cannot go without our TikToks and our thirst traps. But we’re not entirely to blame; the tech industry has had a grip on our brains since they were tiny and smooth.

The question is: how much of our doomscrolling can we blame on designers? And can we break the grip our phones have on us?

Doomscrolling makes us feel awful, but it’s not necessarily all our fault. (Photo: Paula Daniëlse/Getty)

Dr Alex Beattie, a technology and media scholar at Victoria University, believes the blame for our apparent screen addiction lies with both us and the app designers. “We have free will,” he told The Spinoff. “But our choice to put down our phones or continue to scroll is the result of both our own ability and those who design the space for us.” He described walking into a building, and choosing whether to open a door or a window: we have the choice, but we’re influenced by the designer of the building. “I can’t just run through a wall,” he pointed out. 

Beattie deleted his Facebook in 2013, before it was cool to do so. He’s an expert in disconnection; the science of not being so online all the time. While some people are able to disconnect (put down their phone) easily, others struggle. “Some of us have lower impulse control than others,” he said. “I would put myself in that category.”

He still hasn’t got back on Facebook, but has agreed to start a joint account with his partner for the purpose of using community pages and keeping up with the local news. “Digital connections and the kind of infrastructure Facebook provides means it’s often hard to disconnect,” he continued. “It’s like removing yourself from the Yellow Pages.”

Alex Beattie, an expert in disconnecting, says some of us have lower impulse control than others. (Photo: Tom Rowley)

There are no medical or psychological guidelines to tell you whether or not you’re “too online”. Only you can decide if your doomscrolling is a problem. Maybe you’re not spending enough time with your family, or you find yourself in a state of anxiety when you haven’t checked your phone in a few minutes. Maybe looking at everyone’s perfect lives on Instagram is getting you down.

Whatever the reason, when you choose to disconnect you don’t have to go cold turkey and throw your phone out; the digital wellbeing industry is here to help.

If you’re an iPhone user, you’ve probably heard of Screen Time, an app that allows you to block notifications and calls and set a daily limit on how much you use an app. The Android equivalent is called Digital Wellbeing. But there are other ways to avoid doomscrolling that target specific design features of social media.

You can make your phone greyscale, stripping it of the candy-like colours our monkey brains froth over. Beattie likens it to putting plain packaging on cigarettes – it’s the same product, it just looks less exciting. Then there’s an app called Siempo, which is like the Nicorette of apps; it replaces your social media app icons with generic branding, and makes it harder to get to them so you’re less likely to log on out of habit; you’ve got a few moments to choose not to open Facebook.

Andrew Mayfield, CEO of user experience research platform Optimal Workshop, knows a lot about digital design. Optimal Workshop makes software for experimenting with different web designs and especially for improving how information is structured and labelled. He knows there are designers out there trying to keep people on the webpage, or paying for a service. “They’re often designed to manipulate, trick – cajole is a word I use. For example, when you try to unsubscribe from a newsletter it shouldn’t take four clicks to get there.”

He and his team try to set an ethical example. There are various codes of ethics for software designers, and the team at Optimal has considered writing its own principles. “Our team seems to approach things with good intent,” he said. “But good intent isn’t enough. We need to do the work necessary for our designs to hold us accountable to that intent. I believe people should design their apps to help people get more out of life.”

There are various apps to help you disconnect now, some more useful than others. (Photo: Getty Images)

He abhors pop-up ads, and although he still uses it himself he calls social media “just plain addictive”. But he’s hesitant to make a judgement call on exactly how evil the design of social media is. “Is it evil to engage people in a never-ending feed? We’re consuming, and we’re often learning too – is it just that people think we should look less at screens?” he asked. “It’s not necessarily evil to look at a screen, it’s what’s on the screen that matters. And what are we not doing – are we neglecting our children or something important as a result of this?”

“What [the designers of these apps] want is for you to click more ads,” he said. “I don’t like ads myself, but it’s a model.”

Mayfield is right to point out that frequent screen use isn’t necessarily evil. For many New Zealanders, it’s actually a necessity. “We can very easily be ableist,” warned Beattie. “I don’t need a screen for my everyday life, but some people are more dependent on a screen, so for them this stuff around disconnecting is totally whack.”

But particular elements of social media, Beattie believes, might eventually be labelled harmful. “Through decades of research, we can say, definitively, one cigarette is harmful. We’re nowhere near that with smartphones or social media,” he said. While we might doomscroll and neglect to cook dinner and feel awful, Facebook also allows us to hear from our grandparents or children in other countries. That’s nice. “It’s really hard to drill down into what it is about social media and the way it’s designed and say what’s harmful,” said Beattie.

One day we might have decades of research showing red push notifications and endless newsfeeds are giving us brainworms, but right now? According to Beattie, we can’t prove it. All we can do is download even more apps, designed to keep us off the others.

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