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Why we scroll

From “depressive anhedonia” to “pain management,” some helpful theories exist

torso of a man in a business suit, close up on his hands holding a phone in an action that looks like scrolling

When writing his book, Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism & Social Media, British professor Marcus Gilroy-Ware realized he had collected a lot of examples of people meeting death or injury while taking selfies. So many, in fact, that he stopped collecting them. He’d realized there was nothing special about them, and that there was no longer any separation between online and offline life.

Gilroy-Ware’s book is worthy of an in-depth review, but for time’s sake let’s turn to his theory about why we find ourselves spending hours scrolling through social media feeds, looking for nothing in particular and having no set point of when to stop. “Depressive hedonia” is the term he used to explain the phenomenon. “Anhedonia” means the inability to feel pleasure. “Hedonia” is feeling good and is the basis of the word “hedonism” (“an ethical doctrine taught by the ancient Epicureans and Cyrenaics and by the modern utilitarians that asserts that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life” -Merriam-Webster Unabridged).

Depressive hedonia would be the inability to pursue anything but pleasure. This describes the hours spent on Reddit’s meme boards, or the rage-addiction of engaging with American extremists on Facebook (yes, rage can be quite an endorphin hit).

I’ll go into Filling the Void in more detail at another time. I bring it up now because a new book is out that holds similar theories of “distraction.” Indistractible: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal is a self-help-for-c-suiters type of book that presents data and info on why we scroll. One of Eyal’s major theories: “Time management is pain management.” Like Gilroy-Ware, Eyal proposes that we are turning to the social media feed (or our phones in general) in an effort to manage feelings of discomfort inside us.

I’ll also go into Indistractible in more detail later. For now I want to leave you with the thought that our, *your*, habit of scrolling, falling down the internet rabbit hole, swiping and swiping, and any other of our daily, hourly, minute-ly habits, are attempts at managing discomfort by a constant drive to find small tidbits of comfort in tiny sparks of curiosity, humor, sense of purpose, moral righteousness and so on. We’re seeking to rid ourselves of discomfort by seeking comfort – constantly.

How to break the cycle? Therapists would say this: Lean into the pain. The endless scrolling can’t bandage a damaged self. Address the discomfort first (both books offer advice here but Eyal’s book offers workbook exercises). Once the discomfort is managed, the scrolling will fade away.

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

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