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The evolution of scrolling: from basic navigation to time-thief at bedtime

I often ponder on how the digital revolution mirrors the transformative changes ushered in by the Industrial Revolution, which began in the UK in the late 18th century and gradually spread worldwide into the 20th century. Industries and professions have emerged, peaked, and then completely fallen away as technology speeds ahead.

The world of digital technology has brought forth many ground-breaking innovations, with the emergence of the internet being paramount among them. Yet, among all these advancements, perhaps from the perspective of sleep and mental health, the scroll feature stands out for its, perhaps, understated insidious impact. From its ancient roots to its modern applications, scrolling has shaped our interactions with content. For me, it is like the modern-day sandman, stealthily stealing our time, especially before bed.

From Papyrus to Pixels

Earlier this year, on a trip to Egypt, we got suckered into visiting a papyrus shop. You know the sort – you go on a day trip and then you must visit “my friend’s shop”. As they laid out the scrolls of papyrus, I suddenly clocked the possibility that this might be the source of that trickly little beast, the scroll function. Perhaps the concept of scrolling isn’t uniquely digital? Instead, its lineage traces back to the scrollable papyrus rolls of ancient civilisations. This primitive method of “moving content” to reveal more has evolved as technology has raced forward.

Interest peaked; I researched more about the evolution of scrolling because I recall in the dusty recesses of my brain reading something about an engineer involved in the evolution of scrolling and regretting it (I can’t find a source for this, so maybe I dreamt it!?). So I found out that in the 1970s, the digital version of scrolling we’re familiar with began to take shape, thanks to the pioneering efforts at Xerox PARC. However, the broader adoption started in the 1980s, with the rise of operating systems from tech giants like Apple and Microsoft.

The infinite scroll revolution in social media

With the basic scroll function well-established, a new entrant emerged: infinite scroll. This is where content continuously loads as users delve deeper, offering an endless cascade of information mediated by faceless algorithms.

When discussing social media usage before bed, my clients will often have heard me bemoan those genius engineers at platforms like Twitter and Facebook who deliberately popularised this design, shifting user interaction from active searching to passive consumption – they have got us hooked! With an unending supply of new posts and content, we all find ourselves sucked in, spending more hours, often unintentionally, on these platforms.

Hooked on the scroll: the time thief

Scrolling before sleep: the unseen impact

The underlying psychology of infinite scrolling taps into our innate curiosity. The constant promise of “more” just below our current view can be enticing. This mirrors the anticipatory reward mechanism seen in slot machines; the next big reward, or in this case, a life-changing post or tweet that will solve everything, could be just a scroll away. (I actually think it's less prosaic than this, perhaps there is always another cute puppy clip to watch?)

This “just one more” mentality is where the time-thieving nature of scrolling comes into sharp focus. Hours can fly by without realisation, especially during times when we should be winding down.

So it’s time to control the scroll

Recognising that we are all up against the behemoths of technical genius, we all need to take control of our tendency to be sucked by the scroll. Being aware of our digital habits, especially before bed, is the first step. We need to set some limits on our usage consciously. Tips to do this include:

  • Setting screen-time limits.

  • Using ‘Night Mode’ or similar features to reduce blue light exposure.

  • Keeping a no-device rule an hour before bedtime.

The journey of scrolling, from its ancient beginnings to its digital dominance, is jaw-dropping. It is a stand-out example of the ability of the power of design to change human behaviour fundamentally. It’s almost impossible to live in a digital-free world, so we need to be aware and remain mindful of our usage and habits to ensure our well-being isn't compromised. Balancing enjoyment of content with mindful consumption can ensure we don’t fall prey to the time-thieving nature of the scroll, especially at when we should be relaxing in the sanctity of our bed.

Night night.

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