The Social Media Rabbit Hole

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On social media impact: Fontina Battaglia, a Chicago High School for the Arts Senior

by Caileigh Winslade

A ChiArts senior scrolls through social media on their phone. Photograph by Caileigh Winslade.

Social media is a technology that is hard to avoid in a modern age. It’s used by businesses, teens, adults, and even young children. But today, there is a rampant increase of social media addiction.

The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology recommends no more than 30 minutes a day on digital media. However, in a 2021 Global Web Index survey, it was found that those aged 16 to 64 around the world spend an average of six hours and 58 minutes on the internet each day. That’s over a six hour increase from the recommended time.

What makes social media platforms, like Instagram or TikTok, so addicting?

There are a lot of possibilities, and one answer that comes up over and over again: infinite scrolling.

Infinite scrolling is a tactic used by social media platforms, notably TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram, where feeds are continuously refreshing new content as you scroll. So, you could scroll forever — infinitely — and never run out of posts to view. 

This tactic even has psychology behind why such scrolling can be so addicting. A common example used to describe infinite scrolling is a Skinner Box, which is a psychological study where rats are put into a cage with a lever and chute. The rats learn that if they press the lever, they might receive a treat, or they might receive a shock. The rats have no way of knowing which they’ll get, but they’re motivated by the treats, so they repeatedly press the lever, hoping for a treat.

Illustration by Sophie Lucido Johnson.

This is like how we scroll on social media. We are given the possibility of a reward, an interesting post, a funny video, but we don’t know when that will happen. So, we keep scrolling. 

Over, and over, and over again.

Many people believe that this tactic contributes to social media addiction. When asked how often they use social media on a daily basis, Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) senior Kitty Batie said four hours outside of school.

Batie frequents TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and occasionally Twitter — all social media platforms that use an infinite scrolling feed.

Batie is one of the many people who believes social media addiction has had an impact in their life. In their middle school years, Batie said they clicked through everyone’s social media with curiosity. They said they believed infinite scrolling contributed to that.

Such an addiction can cause severe damages to users’ mental health. 

Katie Eppinger, a Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) sophomore Diverse Learner teacher, has created many classroom phone policies throughout her teaching career. Often, she has had pockets to put away phones in, or simply has a policy of students putting their phones away during instructional time.

“In theory, it sounds great, but it’s not always the best day-to-day practice.” Eppinger said. She noted seeing infinite scrolling having an effect on students, causing them to be distracted when they pull out their phones — even if they originally pulled it out for educational purposes.

“You can see students being addicted. It feels sometimes like you’re in a different state when you’re scrolling. You don’t recognize anything in your surroundings,” Eppinger said.

“You can see students being addicted. It feels sometimes like you’re in a different state when you’re scrolling. You don’t recognize anything in your surroundings.”

Katie Eppinger, Chicago High School for the Arts Teacher

So, should infinite scrolling be removed from social media? The consensus is unclear. 

“From a social media standpoint, it would be ugly to look at,” Batie said — although they noted that they still thought an interface without infinite scrolling would be better. 

Eppinger was also conflicted. She expressed concern that once we start limiting factors of social media, where do we stop?

“Someone’s like, ‘Oh, social media is bad,’ then we get rid of all social media,” she said, as a possibility.

Some social media platforms have a built-in feature to prevent infinite scrolling. TikTok and Instagram, if detected that a user is scrolling for too long, will give a notification. They’ll suggest a break. Sometimes they’ll use a setting that locks your phone entirely. But does it really work to motivate people to take a step back from the online world?

Batie said no.

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