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Fear

5 Ways Our Constant Scrolling Is Messing With Our Minds

The constant lens of the internet changes the way we think and act.

Key points

  • The lens of the internet pushes people to care too much about what others think.
  • The internet edges people towards inauthenticity and the creation of stage-worthy moments.
  • Filters and editing apps can make people want the impossible by showing them a version of themselves they cannot mimic in reality.

This week, I reread a single email five times. For those of you who are conscientious, this might not seem too bizarre... until I tell you that it was an email that I had already sent. I stewed over my words—were they good enough? Did they really capture my sentiment? And then I thought about how much time I was wasting and made the decision to let it go.

Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
Woman scrolling on phone
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Then, I wondered how many people do exactly the same thing—re-reading emails, social media posts, text messages. How much time are we all collectively wasting overthinking our online steps?

And then I remembered the panopticon.

The Prisoners or the Guards?

The panopticon is both a theoretical concept of surveillance and an actual architectural structure proposed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Essentially, it is a tower in the center of a rotunda, filled with rooms all facing the center. A key design feature is its nebulousness: All of the inhabitants of the rooms would know there was a possibility they were being surveilled, but they would never really know if they were being watched. Although originally designed with prisoners in mind, it didn’t take long for theorists to liken the panopticon to the workings of the internet.

But unlike its traditional design, in the internet panopticon, we are not confined to the role of either prisoner or guard. We are both the watchers and the watched, and this reality has a substantial effect on the way we move through our worlds.

The effects are many, but here are the five most obvious ways that our constant scrolling is messing with the way we think, how we see the world, and how we decide to act within it:

  1. It’s pushing us towards inauthenticity: It’s well known that the internet is not a carbon copy of reality. Perhaps because of the asynchronicity or anonymity of the medium, most people admit that they lie online, and only 2% of people expect that others are being honest. Granted, our lies aren’t often malicious. Instead, we tend to lie in predictable, self-serving ways, to make ourselves seem more attractive or interesting. This veil of deception may be one reason why people are starting to follow reality-pushing social media influencers, like Danae Mercer, who are exposing their real bodies and calling out the filters, editing apps, and poses that give us unrealistic expectations about how people really look. Unfortunately, these rare and refreshing glimpses of reality are not enough to overpower the extreme social pressure we feel to conform to the beauty and lifestyle standards that surround us.
  2. It may be increasing our paranoia: As a population, even those of us without a clinical diagnosis are pretty paranoid. In fact, a 2007 study showed that about 15-20% of us experience paranoid thinking. As paranoia is comprised of facets including suspiciousness and fear of others, it’s no surprise that interactions online might increase our paranoia. Since Edward Snowden’s 2013 whistleblowing on the US National Security Association’s worldwide surveillance, we’re all highly attuned to the fact that we’re being watched online. But sometimes this elevates into actual cyber-paranoia, and researchers have even developed a scale to measure it. According to them, cyber-paranoia is pretty common and is relatively distinct from general paranoia for most of us. Research has also found that time online can intensify it, in that more social media use predicts greater paranoia. So while some of our fears are rational, like those related to tracking, time online can also increase our irrational thoughts too, like fears of persecution and negative evaluation.
  3. It’s making us care too much about what other people think: It’s absolutely normal to think (and care) about what other people think. It’s a sign that you are attuned to your social surroundings. And according to Dunbar’s social brain hypothesis, our complex social interactions with other humans are the reason why primates have larger brains than other vertebrates. However, the permanence of the internet adds a layer of concern for many that manifests in a variety of different behaviors, from editing an email or text message multiple times before sending (or re-reading after it’s sent) to using destroy after reading apps to erase our digital footprints so we don’t fall victim to cancel culture. Others’ online comments are also powerful influencers of our perceptions. As an example, positive or negative social media comments influence our attitudes towards body ideals. So while it’s likely adaptive to our existence as social beings to care about what others think, the internet can exacerbate our natural tendencies.
  4. It’s pressuring us to create stage-worthy moments: There are camps of both philosophers and psychologists who would argue that humans are quite egoistic—that we are driven by pleasure and satisfying our own needs. The internet intensifies this egoism, by reinforcing (through likes and comments) the documentation of our daily lives. It’s almost irresistible. Although the idea of an imaginary audience was once limited to adolescence-- a time when it is suggested that we are self-centered—the existence of a real audience attending to our every move means that people may carry this sense of “having an audience” well into adulthood. And this constant audience attention may color our portrayal of events. From snapping food pics to trying to make sure one’s event or experience looks good in photos, this pressure might change how we set up and experience our life’s special moments.
  5. It’s making us want the impossible: The other day, I tested a “cute tattoos” filter on Instagram and considered for a few seconds getting the word “spirit” tattooed above my eyebrow. My friend gave me a reality check by reminding me that no tattoo would actually change my face. Suddenly, I felt the Snapchat dysmorphia that I’ve been reading about. Testament to their popularity, new filters and editing apps pop up every day on nearly every social media venue. Sure, they’re fun, but they also show us a version of ourselves that reality cannot mimic—so much so, that patients are asking for plastic surgery so they can look better in selfies. But it’s not just impossible faces we want; we also want impossible lifestyles (private jets and nonstop travel), and impossible jobs (a recent survey showed that 75% of youth want to be YouTube stars). Making the impossible look easy is one of the biggest tricks of the internet, and it’s shaping our desires and preferences.

References

Dirnhuber, J. (2017, May). Vlog's a job Children turn backs on traditional careers in favour of internet fame, study finds. The Sun. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3617062/children-turn-backs-on-traditiona…

Drouin, M., Miller, D. A., Wehle, S. M. J., & Hernandez, E. (2016). Why do people lie online? “Because everyone lies on the internet.” Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 134–142.

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1998). The social brain hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology, 6(5), 178–190.

Freeman, D., Garety, P. A., Bebbington, P. E., Smith, B., Rollinson, R., Fowler, D., Kuipers, E., Ray, K., & Dunn, G. (2005). Psychological investigation of the structure of paranoia in a non-clinical population. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 186(5), 427–435. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.186.5.427

Kim, H. M. (2021). What do others’ reactions to body posting on Instagram tell us? The effects of social media comments on viewers’ body image perception. New Media & Society, 23(12), 3448–3465. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820956368

Mason, O. J., Stevenson, C., & Freedman, F. (2014). Ever-present threats from information technology: The Cyber-Paranoia and Fear Scale. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01298

Rajanala, S., Maymone, M. B. C., & Vashi, N. A. (2018). Selfies-Living in the era of filtered photographs. JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, 20(6), 443–444. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamafacial.2018.0486

Zimaitis, I., Degutis, M.,Urbonavicious, S. (2020). Social media use and paranoia: Factors that matter in online shopping. Sustainability, 12, 904.

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