Picture this: You’re at your desk working on a project when your phone chimes. A quick glance tells you a friend sent over a video on TikTok. Convinced you’re due for a break, you click the link to find a new dance video from Charli D’Amelio. Fast forward an hour later, and you’re still on your phone, except now you’ve gone from viral dances to animal videos to fitness gurus raving about a weight loss hack.
If this scenario hits too close to home, you’re not alone. Most people on social media check it daily, and younger people are likelier to return to their favorite platforms multiple times a day. TikTok is especially popular with teenagers: A 2022 survey from the Pew Research Center suggests 67 percent of teens use it, while 16 percent use it almost constantly.
So why do people spend so much time online? One underlying reason is that platforms like TikTok promote infinite scrolling. You might start off in one video only for the page to continuously load a never-ending stream of content. Absent-mindedly scrolling through content might seem like an innocent activity and a great excuse to waste time. However, research suggests it can negatively influence the brain and mental health.
Anyone can fall prey to mindless scrolling. Younger people are especially vulnerable since the brain is not fully developed until age 25, says Lisa Pion-Berlin, a psychologist and president of Parents Anonymous, a child abuse prevention nonprofit. While limiting access to social media (like this Utah bill requiring parental permission is trying to do) is one option, learning how to be a more active user can help anyone stop infinite scrolling and still enjoy social media.
Why infinite scrolling is bad for you
Social media platforms like TikTok are not comprehensively bad for you. Several studies suggest social media can prompt feelings of connectedness and positive well-being. Further, they allow for personal expression, which fosters positive mental health.
Ultimately, how social media makes people feel depends on how they use it. For example, excess social media use is associated with feeling more anxious, lonely, and generally bad about yourself.
“The more attached we are to our devices, the more problematic it becomes,” says Lisa Strohman, a psychologist and the founder of Digital Citizen Academy, an education program that teaches children and teens how to have a healthy relationship with technology.
Moreover, Strohman says watching pictures and videos of everyone living their best life might make you worried or sad that you’re missing out. Some research suggests that comparing yourself to others on social media can result in aggression and anxiety, while other studies suggest a link between negative comparisons on social media and suicidal ideation.
Meanwhile, mindless scrolling can result in a state of mind similar to being in a trance state, says Pion-Berlin. She’s concerned that “mindless scrolling is a way to tune out” or dissociate from reality. Some research suggests that overuse of social media can result in negative psychological impacts: A 2023 study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that middle schoolers who constantly checked their social media feeds showed changes in how their brains responded to feedback and criticism from peers.
Infinite scrolling can also lead to disrupted sleep patterns in adolescents and adults. The screen’s blue light can make it difficult to fall asleep, and the constant content prevents your brain from shutting down for the night.
When we sleep, the brain sorts through and categorizes the information from the day and commits the vital stuff into long-term memory, explains Strohman. But mindless social media surfing before bedtime keeps giving it more data for the brain to process throughout the night, “and that’s what tends to lead to that insomnia,” she explains.
How infinite scrolling can hijack the brain
Mindless scrolling helps make social media an addicting habit because it takes advantage of the brain’s reward system, says Strohman.
An enjoyable TikTok, for example, can trigger the brain’s reward pathway. Subsequently, this causes the brain to release a chemical called dopamine, which Strohman describes “as a hit or a high” for the brain. The dopamine surge tells the brain that scrolling through social media is pleasurable and that we should do it again. Because another attention-grabbing Tiktok plays immediately when the first is over, this process starts all over again immediately.
“The brain is rewarded every time because of how the feeds and algorithms are set up so that anytime we’re not on the app, we think we’re missing something,” explains Strohman. “That makes us want to go back on it again.:
The same process applies to adolescents—possibly to a more significant effect. Pion-Berlin explains that because the prefrontal cortex is one of the last brain areas to mature fully, younger people are more impulsive and have less self-control than adults. With less self-control, it may be easier for teens to fall into this rabbit hole of social media content, she says. In addition, the limbic system—a part of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses—is also more sensitive during our teenage years, which makes them likelier to prioritize pleasurable and desirable activities.
What are some ways to stop infinite scrolling?
While infinite scrolling isn’t great, that does not mean you need to quit social media altogether. On the contrary, there are some benefits to staying on the apps, such as building communities among people with a shared hobby or interest, maintaining relationships with family who live miles away, raising awareness for a particular cause, and learning from credible experts.
To make the most of your time, you’ll want to become an active rather than a passive user. Active users interact with others— in practice, this could look like commenting on posts or creating content. The high engagement gives you a specific purpose for being on the app, allows you to nurture and maintain online friendships, and is associated with improved well-being.
Meanwhile, infinite scrolling is a passive activity because you’re socially disconnected from others and lurking in the background. Of course, sometimes you just want to take a break from life and watch some mind-numbing videos. In these situations, you’ll want to set a timer to limit the time you spend online and know when it’s time to log off, Strohman says.
Another suggestion from Strohman is turning off notifications. People often fall into mindless surfing when notified or tagged in something. And while you might start out looking at the relevant post, you can easily find yourself lost in a comment thread or other recommended videos.
“Have a clear purpose when accessing social media,” Strohman says. If a friend shares a post, tell yourself you will only watch this one video and not spend the next two hours on TikTok.
“The more you scroll, the less settled you’ll be,” advises Strohman. “Be mindful, recognize your part in it, and try to do what you can to manage yourself in those online worlds.”