The Infinite Scroll: Why It’s So Addictive and How to Break Free
The infinite scroll is everywhere, its pull almost impossible to resist.
Imagine a legendary restaurant offering an endless buffet.
You’ve heard amazing things about the place, and you want to try their best item. You arrive hungry and you’re told you can eat as much as you’d like for free. There’s a constant flow of food, but there’s one catch — you never know which dish will come next or which one is best.
Before you know it, you’re sick.
A similar sickness is spreading throughout our culture. But it isn’t food we’re consuming — it’s content.
Have you ever been scrolling your Facebook feed and suddenly noticed that two hours have passed? Or maybe you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of cat videos and lost an hour (or three).
If so, you’ve experienced the infinite scroll. A simple feature meant to enhance the online experience quickly became more than that — it turned into a persistent, widespread problem.
In this article, we’ll discuss infinite scrolling, why it’s problematic, and how we can overcome the sickness that comes from endless consumption.
What Is The Infinite Scroll?
With this convenient feature, users can scroll seamlessly through posts or articles, rather than clicking through pages. Compared with traditional pagination models, this type of scrolling eliminates the need for page clicks, making content more accessible to users.
Initially intended to provide users with an improved experience, the feature quickly grew into much more. “Infinite scroll” has transcended just a descriptive term for a website function. Today, it is both a verb and a noun, a phenomenon that pervades everyday life.
Infinite Scrolling Is Everywhere
The advent of infinite scrolling marked a significant shift in how we consume content. When you watch a video on YouTube, the next video loads immediately. Netflix starts the next episode of your favorite show right away. Browsing Reddit reveals an endless stream of social media content.
Social media platforms are among the most popular places to find infinite scrolling. You can scroll endlessly without ever reaching the end, viewing content and interacting with others on popular sites like:
These social media sites encourage continuous scrolling because of the sheer volume of content. It exploits a heuristic or mental shortcut that many people naturally use — the unit bias.
According to this theory, human beings are naturally motivated to complete a unit of something. The tendency is to believe that whatever amount we’re given of something is the ‘right’ amount, so we try to finish it to gain satisfaction.
For example, researchers conducted a study where they placed a large bowl of candy on a table with signs explaining that participants could eat as much as they wanted with the provided scoop. One day, researchers put out a tablespoon, and on the next day, they used a quarter-cup-sized spoon. Candy consumption was substantially higher when the spoon was larger. The spoon size provided created a unit bias, and people adjusted themselves to the size of the scoop.
When the infinite scroll is everywhere, the same thing happens. Since the amount of content offered is endless, we continue browsing to ‘clean our plate.’
The Good and the Bad
Raskin designed the infinite scroll with good intentions. He says his goal was to improve usability, so he drew inspiration from Google maps’ smooth scrolling to develop a feature that would reduce clicks.
And it’s true that this type of scrolling can be helpful for both website owners and visitors. Among these benefits are:
- reduced bounce rates
- efficient browsing
- better exposure to real-time content
- enhanced mobile use
On the flip side, the feature doesn’t always prove beneficial. It can cause issues such as:
- problems with accessibility
- cumbersome navigation
- not great for SEO
- lack of sense of completion
And this isn’t all. Although we all use the infinite scroll every day, it has a dark side. It’s one of the most addictive patterns out there, and it’s difficult to resist its pull.
Why Is It So Addictive?
Like me, you might wonder, how can a simple coded feature capture us so completely that it can influence our behavior?
You can blame it on our brains.
It’s human nature to seek predictability and patterns. In their absence, we search for them. So, we pull to refresh. Rewards aren’t guaranteed, and most of the time, we don’t discover anything remarkable. In the same way as we gamble, we continue to refresh in hope of a quick rush of dopamine.
Research shows that users go from one post to another on social media every 19 seconds. When we scroll through our feeds switching between content so quickly, the brain gets a hit of dopamine each time, creating a sort of neurological ‘high.’
It’s that rush that keeps you scrolling through the content. It’s the same as any addiction, be it drugs, alcohol, or slot machines. One hit leads to another, leading to an addiction-like cycle where users are hooked on the continuous flow.
So hooked, in fact, that someone named an entire model after it.
Research shows that creators intentionally design social media platforms to trigger addictive behaviors. These platforms aid habit formation by using the Hook model. The Hook model creates a customer habit by using four phases — a trigger, action, reward, and investment.
And they work. Hook models generate addictive feedback loops that keep users glued to their phones. When you see a notification, you’re prompted to check your social media, where you’re rewarded with a like or comment, so you’re motivated to keep watching for them.
This is where things get dangerous.
The Hidden Dangers of the Infinite Scroll
With endless scrolling, users have reshaped how they interact with mobile apps and online platforms — for the worse. Even though Raskin designed the feature to improve ease-of-use and overall user experience, he feels guilty now about how addicted people have become to it.
“One of my lessons from infinite scroll: that optimizing something for ease-of-use does not mean best for the user or humanity,”
he tweeted in 2019.
He estimates that the infinite scrolling we do online wastes over 200,000 human lifetimes daily.
While it may benefit usability in a few ways, it can cause a great deal of harm in many other areas of our lives.
Infinite scrolling can be a major distraction and lead to lost productivity. As the endless page loads new content when you reach the bottom, it’s all too easy to get lost in a rabbit hole of content. We forget what we were originally doing online, and lose track of time — which we could’ve used for more productive activities that advance our goals.
The infinite scroll creates a never-ending supply of new information and visuals. This might be too much for some people to handle, resulting in sensory overload. Overstimulation can be harmful, causing people to feel overwhelmed, stressed out, and exhausted.
Mental Health Concerns
Scrolling continuously is also harmful to mental health. The addictive quality can lead to obsessive-compulsive behaviors, anxiety, and depression. The constant bombardment of stories and images creates the illusion of endless possibilities, leading to a sense of urgency and FOMO (fear of missing out).
Physical Health Concerns
Spending so much time scrolling means less physical activity, which is harmful to our physical health. Prolonged exposure to a screen’s blue light can lead to eye fatigue and discomfort, and prolonged phone use before bed can cause sleep loss.
How to Break Free From Obsessive Infinite Scrolling
The infinite scroll poses a threat to our lives. Considering that 85% of Americans are online daily (and 31% are online almost constantly), it may seem like an unstoppable force.
But digital minimalism is possible. To break free from endless scrolling, you can take steps to regain control of your time and attention.
The first step in overcoming any addiction is to recognize it, and continually scrolling is no different. Take a moment to consider how often you are on your devices. Do you scroll mindlessly without thinking about it? Ask yourself why. Identifying the cause can often help stop the habit.
This is an excellent opportunity to witness the many benefits of practicing mindfulness. Because mindfulness emphasizes paying attention deliberately (and redirecting attention on purpose), it has the potential to prevent us from abusing the scroll.
Next, set and enforce limits on your internet use, especially for social media. There are a few ways you can control your usage:
- Time. Restrict how much time you spend online. You can limit your time per day, per session, or even per website. Try the Limit browser extension for effortless control over the websites you find the most distracting.
- Purpose: Limit how much and what type of information you consume. Instead of jumping from link to link, focus on your purpose, complete the task you set out to do, then close your laptop or put down your phone. No clicking cute cat videos (hard, I know!).
- Social Media: Stop the addiction at the source. Turn off notifications, install the Pause extension to stop certain sites from opening, or delete apps from your phone entirely. Just be sure to set limits that are reasonable for you. Breaking the cycle of addiction will take time.
Employ Helpful Tools
Enforce your newly created limits by supporting yourself with helpful tools. Although you could disable your internet connection, this may prevent you from doing other activities or affect those on your network. Instead, concentrate on the infinite scroll function itself.
A simpler solution? Use Freedom. The app gives you much more control over endless scrolling in easy-to-use ways. You can set time limitations on certain websites, create multiple Blocklists for different sessions, and sync your sessions across multiple devices. Simply add your websites to a Blocklist and schedule your access accordingly.
Find Freedom at the End of the Scroll
“If you are not paying for the product, you are the product,”
As they apply to an infinite scroll, the computer philosopher’s words take on new significance. Are we allowing ourselves to be bought by endless scrolling? If so, at what cost? What fraction of our lives are we essentially handing over for free?
With a little mindfulness and self-control, you can break free from the infinite scroll’s grip and reclaim your time and attention.