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How to Avoid the Downside of the Internet Rabbit Hole

Are you worried about your relationship to your phone and social media?

Key points

  • Boredom is one factor that drive people toward social media, which can have positive or negative effects.
  • Pacifying boredom by passively scrolling through social media fails to satisfy people's need for agency.
  • Using the internet actively and creatively can both reduce boredom and establish a fulfilling sense of agency.

Every new generation bemoans the evils of new technologies. Socrates thought that writing would ruin our capacity to remember things. Good thing for him that Plato wrote that down. The past few decades have replaced concerns over the potential ills of a quill and ink pot with concerns that the internet will ruin our brains. But what is the reality?

BBC sports broadcaster Andrew Cotter found fame during the COVID-19 pandemic through his playful videos with his dogs, one in which a performance review (“Mabel you’ve had a good year, 913 squirrels chased, none caught”) garnered close to 3 million views. In the lockdown, many a passion blossomed, from sour dough baking to slow television. And already established social media platforms like TikTok exploded in popularity.

It’s true that during the pandemic, we spoke of Zoom fatigue, but the yin to that yang is that Zoom and platforms like it made it possible for us to connect in ways those who lived through the Spanish flu epidemic of the 20th Century could only have dreamed about.

So, the internet and social media can’t all be bad, right?

Defining Our Relationship to Technology

The flipside of our relationship to social media, our smartphones, and the internet is not quite so amusing as interviews with dogs or as productive as many of us have become on Zoom calls. Recent work has shown that when we turn to our phones and social media outlets to merely occupy our time, or to pacify negative feelings such as anxiety, depression or boredom, that our relation to technology becomes problematic, dancing close to the edge (or over it) of compulsive or addictive use.

This is not a new concern. The internet exploded in terms of public accessibility and utility in the mid-1990s. By the end of that decade, the spectre of a new mental illness — that of internet addiction — had arisen. Like other addictive behaviours, the concept was that those addicted to the internet showed both tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Tolerance to a drug typically means the user seeks more frequent hits to achieve a high. For the internet addicted, tolerance may be evident when we seek more and more time online. And when not online, feelings of anxiety descend, a strong signal of withdrawal.

Labeling excessive internet use as an addiction is not without controversy and "internet addiction" has not breached the threshold for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible for clinical diagnoses. Perhaps indicative of this uncertainty, the experience goes by many names including internet addiction, internet communication disorder, and more recently, problematic smartphone use, a label indicative of the way many of us most commonly engage with the internet and social media. Regardless of the name, more recent work has just started to examine the role boredom plays in our relation to technology.

The Consequences of Pacifying Boredom

There are two ways boredom can drive us to have a problematic relationship to our phones, the internet, and social media — a desire to escape from boredom on the one hand or to mitigate the challenges that boredom signals on the other. With respect to the latter, when bored we are struggling to engage our cognitive resources, particularly attention, on the task at hand, or the world around us more generally. Scrolling through Twitter, Instagram or Facebook provides a quick, easy, and let’s face it, rewarding solution. We can skip quickly from one post to the next and let the feed occupy our minds for us. It is effortless and engaging at the same time.

Indeed, a recent study in adolescents with ADHD — a group who suffer from elevated levels of boredom associated with their struggle to maintain attention — showed that higher levels of boredom proneness, and in particular boredom characterized by a strong need for external stimulation, was associated with internet addiction. In some sense then, the internet is appealing in that it seamlessly occupies our minds and simultaneously satisfies a desire for novelty and sensation, a desire that is particularly strong for the boredom prone. But while we succumb to the ease of that appeal, we also fail to practice the skills needed to focus on tasks we really care about.

When we turn to the internet to occupy our wayward attentional resources we are also likely satisfying a second need — the need to avoid (or pacify) the negative feelings of boredom. Boredom is uncomfortable and undesirable. It is challenging us to find something meaningful to engage in, but that challenge can be painfully difficult to satisfy. Here again, the internet and social media provide a readily available and easy solution. While scrolling through our Snapchat feed, the discomfort of boredom ebbs away.

Boredom is not the only negative experience we are trying to escape of course. Problematic smartphone use has prominently been associated with feelings of depression and anxiety. In attempting to understand these relationships, it seems clear that boredom plays a role in our fraught relation with technology and the challenges of living with feelings of depression and anxiety. Boredom and boredom proneness may drive us to our phones to pacify feelings of anxiety and depression.

Once again, this casts boredom within the context of drivers of addictive behaviour. That is, boredom is just one of a long list of experiences we would typically wish to avoid. The readily available access to easy stimulation that our smartphones provide clearly function well as a pacifier of those negative feelings of boredom, depression, and anxiety.

Boredom and the Fear of Missing Out

While the internet and fear of a new addictive illness related to it arose in the late ’90s, it wasn’t until the mid to late 2000s that social media began to make its inroads into our daily lives. This has led to a new worry, perhaps most acutely among the young — the fear or missing out or FOMO. We know that there are strong relations between negative feelings including boredom and anxiety, and both FOMO and problematic smartphone use. It is difficult to tease out the direction of these relations, but at least one study suggests that boredom may be the driver.

All this suggests that when we’re bored we feel disengaged, not only from things in front of us, but also from our social circles (real or online). This leads to feelings of FOMO that in turn drive problematic smartphone use.

How we use social media may be an important factor to consider. Those with narcissistic traits may be at greater risk of developing a problematic relation to their phones and social media. However, the nature of the relation depends on different forms of narcissism. The overt (or grandiose) narcissist brags long and loud about their own brilliance (and tends to be less boredom prone). The covert (or vulnerable) narcissist worries that the world is failing to fully recognize their true brilliance — and they in turn are more prone to boredom. Both have higher rates of compulsive smartphone use, but it’s the covert, vulnerable narcissist whose phone use is driven by boredom.

We may turn to our phones, the internet, and social media to avoid certain feelings, boredom among them. Or we may turn to these things, social media in particular, for feedback and reassurance that we matter. In both circumstances, we are trying to alleviate negative emotional experiences, and we run the risk of trapping ourselves in an unhealthy loop.

A Matter of Agency

What differentiates the funny TikToks, the engaging lessons in sour dough baking, and the like from the problematic relations some of us exhibit with the internet and social media? Agency. In attempting to pacify negative feelings like boredom we could choose to actively engage with the world in a way that highlights our own agency — that we are the authors of our own lives.

Making funny YouTube videos or just reaching out to friends you haven’t heard from in ages using any of the Zoom-like platforms, is an active way to engage with the world. To open up Candy Crush and let the time dwindle away, or to compulsively scroll through social media feeds without ever fully dedicating our attention to any one post, is to more passively let technology occupy our minds.

We’re not suggesting that we must always actively engage with the world — sometimes it’s fine to binge-watch a new TV series, or zone out on your Twitter feed. Ultimately, this is about balance—choosing to spend more of our time as active agents when we engage with the world, as opposed to being passive recipients of it.

More from James Danckert Ph.D., and John Eastwood, Ph.D.
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More from James Danckert Ph.D., and John Eastwood, Ph.D.
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