Clinically Reviewed by Dr. Olalekan Otulana (Advanced Practitioner)
All information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.
Last Reviewed: 15th December 2023
Have you ever found yourself putting off work or essential tasks while you mindlessly scroll through your phone instead? Have you ever been incredibly tired but still stayed up until the early hours or behind, going through your social media feeds? Has so-called ‘doomscrolling’ – reading through endless reams of negative news – badly affected your mental health but you continue to do it anyway? All these things may be signs of a scrolling addiction.
When most people think of addiction, they probably picture something like heroin, crack cocaine or alcohol addiction. Substance misuse can certainly have a profound effect on physical and mental health and a person’s ability to function in normal society, but that doesn’t mean that behavioural addictions cannot be a serious problem for the people involved and others around them.
Many – perhaps most – of us use our mobile phones and other devices too much, or in a way that is detrimental to our physical and mental wellbeing. That doesn’t mean that we are all addicted, however. The difference between regular or even problematic scrolling and truly addictive behaviour can come down to a number of factors.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences”. It adds: “People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
It is interesting to note that in the above definition, problems with behaviours as well as substances can be classed as addictions. Gambling addiction, for example, is widely recognised as a serious problem that can leave people in debt or destitute, as well as damaging relationships, families, work and other aspects of a person’s life.
There is still debate on whether behavioural addictions such as shopping, porn and even gaming addiction should be classified alongside drug or alcohol addictions, but there’s no doubting that they can have a big negative impact on people’s lives.
Another important defining aspect of addiction is that the behaviour becomes compulsive and that people often continue “despite harmful consequences”. If you continue your scrolling habits despite the fact that they are having a negative effect on your work, home life, mental health or other areas of your life, you might well have a problem that you need to address.
It might not have the same chemical factors as a drug addiction but scrolling can create very similar compulsions and there are a number of theories regarding the underlying reasons.
According to the psychological concept of operant conditioning, behaviour may be strengthened by reinforcement or weakened by punishment. This is why ‘likes’ and other signs of approval can be so addictive on your Instagram feed or other social media apps. Your behaviour (making a post of a certain kind) is reinforced by the positive reactions of the people leaving the likes.
Scrolling has what is termed a ‘variable-ratio schedule’, where behaviour is not guaranteed to receive reinforcement, but you know that it might. There is a possibility that the content you get to next might be something interesting, humorous or otherwise valuable to you in some way.
According to eminent psychologist B. F. Skinner, who pioneered the concept of operant conditioning, behaviours on a variable-ratio schedule are the least likely to be abandoned – in other words they become addictive.1
There are more factors at play when it comes to what makes certain content valuable, engaging or addictive. One study suggested that ‘accessibility’ of content could lead consumers down a rabbit hole, offering bite-sized content that makes it easy to quickly consume lots of videos or posts in a row, while automatically suggesting similar content to try next.2
A scrolling habit can have a serious impact on your time, energy and mental health. Some people may find themselves growing increasingly anxious, especially if they ‘doom scroll’, compulsively looking at negative news stories and content. Scrolling addiction can put a strain on relationships and take away time from your responsibilities, home life and other activities that you once enjoyed. If you find yourself constantly scrolling on your smartphone or other mobile device, or browsing your social media on a work computer instead of the work you’re actually paid for, it could also test the limits of your employer. If you are showing signs of scrolling addiction, it might be time to try looking for help.
As with other addictions and compulsive behaviours, scrolling addiction can be successfully treated with a combination of therapy and other techniques. Rehabilitation centres are adept at treating a wide range of addictions, addictive behaviours and mental health issues. Successfully treating a serious addiction problem generally requires the root causes of the behaviour to be addressed. This can be through therapeutic techniques such as group therapy, 1:1 counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), as well as educational sessions. Ultimately the goal is to change the way you think and act regarding the harmful behaviour, helping you to steer clear of it in the future and make a long-lasting recovery.
If entering rehab for scrolling addiction seems a bit extreme, there are also a number of things you can do to break the cycle yourself. According to psychologist Joshua Ehrlich, the first step is admitting you actually have a problem. You can then try things like turning off your notifications, leaving your phone in another room or leaving it behind altogether – a thought that seems increasingly impossible to many of us but which can actually be liberating. You don’t have to abandon your phone entirely but reducing the several hours a day of screen time you usually spend can drastically improve your productivity and wellbeing.
Raffa Bari - Author Last updated: 19th December 2023
Raffa manages the day to day caring services here at Cassiobury Court. Dedicated to the treatment and well being of our visitors she is an outstanding mental health coach registered with BAAT (British Association of Art Therapists). Raffa has outstanding experience in managing rehabs across the country and is vastly experienced at helping people recover from drug and alcohol addictions.
Dr. Olalekan Otulana (Advanced Practitioner) - Medical Reviewer - Last Reviewed: 15th December 2023
Dr. Olalekan Otulana MBChB, DRCOG, MRCGP, DFSRH, FRSPH, MBA (Cantab)
Dr Otulana is a highly experienced GP and Addiction Physician. He has a specialist interest in Substance Misuse Management and he has a wide range of experience in the assessment, management (including detoxification) and residential rehabilitation of clients with various drug and substance addiction problems. His main aim is to comprehensively assess patients with addiction problems and determine their treatment needs for medical detoxification treatments and psychological interventions. He is also experienced in managing patients who require dual drug and alcohol detoxification treatments.
A strong healthcare services professional with a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) degree from Cambridge University Judge Business School.
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