Why Do Adolescents Love ‘Doom Scrolling’? And Is This A Problem?
Takeaway: Doom scrolling social media feeds can entertain your teen, make her feel socially connected, and relieve underlying anxiety. But it also quickly becomes addictive and gives adolescents a warped view of the world. The solution? Help set internet rules and encourage other healthier online and offline habits.
The internet is a perfect tool for our childlike sense of curiosity.
We, humans, are always curious about the world around us. And this curiosity is driven by brain chemicals (like dopamine) that reward us with a burst of excitement whenever we discover something new. It’s why the internet and social media are so appealing – being an unlimited virtual space to explore. They tap into our unique brain chemistry more effectively than any other information source. And usually, this is a good thing because it drives us to innovate and invent new goods and services to improve the quality of our lives.
Unfortunately, the internet and social media apps are engineered to encourage ‘doom scrolling.’
Social media can be a lifesaver at times. (For instance, it helped people stay connected during the 2020 lockdowns.) But unfortunately, it’s also designed to trap us in an addictive cycle of checking and rechecking our phones. Apps like Facebook and Instagram want us to spend more time online because it increases their advertising revenue. And so their engineers design in-app features to keep us ‘doom scrolling’ through a never-ending social media feed. For instance, the ‘likes’ feature gives us a quick fix of social validation, luring us into rechecking our feeds to see how many people have responded to our latest post.
Doom scrolling might start off being fulfilling. But it quickly becomes an out-of-control reflex to boredom or distress.
One of the more obvious reasons we doom scroll is our fear of missing out (FOMO). We’re afraid that skipping a friend’s post will mean missing out on potential fun times. Alternatively, we might use doom scrolling when we’re anxious, to find comforting, funny videos. Or we might reach out via social media to socialise when lonely. The trouble is that doom scrolling rarely stays healthy. Instead, we’re soon addicted to compulsively checking our social media feeds for updates. And since most news updates are engineered to grab our attention, they’re often negative – painting a picture of a scary, out-of-control world. So, we start doom-scrolling to feel a bit better about life but end up feeling more anxious and lonely than before.
This pattern is worse for impressionable adolescents.
As harmful as doom scrolling can be for adults, it’s worse for adolescents whose brains are still developing. Not only does doom scrolling give them a warped worldview (making them more anxious), but it regularly feeds them inappropriate content. The addictive dopamine hits from doom scrolling affect adolescents much more intensely than adults, wearing out their brains and increasing their risk of anxiety, depression, and inattentiveness.
So, what’s the solution? Well, we must first teach adolescents why doom scrolling is toxic.
Part of why doom scrolling is dangerous is that adolescents don’t know it’s toxic. So, we must first help them explore how web surfing impacts their mental health. For instance, you might ask your teen how she feels after a late-night scrolling session – and why she feels that way. Also, ask her why some posts make her more emotional (angry, scared, etc.) than others and how app designers might use this to hook her attention repeatedly. Finally, explain how social media giants profit from monetising her attention (through advertisements) and selling her browsing information to interested businesses.
Also, we can teach adolescents to use the internet more deliberately.
Next, we need to teach children to use the internet more deliberately. And this means allocating time slots for different apps. For instance, adolescents could have two devices, each set up differently. The first will be loaded with only a web browser (to research homework topics, look up trivia, etc.), and the second will have social media apps. This encourages her to decide upfront what she plans to do online – because each device is set up for only one type of activity. Of course, this will take a bit of getting used to. For example, she might be used to surfing the net, coming across a funny video, and then forwarding it to a friend. Now she’ll have to get used to writing down these social media to-do’s and ‘batch processing’ them when her official social media time starts. Sure, this will be hard initially, but it’ll do wonders for her focus and attention span. And the more you frame these benefits positively, the more she’ll buy into the system.
But remember that doom scrolling fills a need. A need adolescents will have to meet some other way.
As we discussed earlier, doom scrolling temporarily fills a need in your adolescent’s life. For instance, it might entertain her when she’s bored, reassure her when she’s anxious, or cheer her up when she’s lonely. So, simply banning doom scrolling won’t work. Rather, she’ll need to address her social and psychological needs some other way. For instance, she could practise mindfulness, keep a gratitude journal, find a fun hobby, start a new art project, subscribe to a comedy newsletter, and more.
For more ideas and specifics about doom scrolling and your adolescent’s psychological needs, we have specialists who can help.
The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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