Gone Fishing: A case study on screen time and Instagram

A graphic of a person sitting on top of a instagram mockup with a fishing pole. The reel is hooked onto the Instagram logo.

You’ve been doom scrolling for the past 2 hours. You find yourself going down the same rabbit hole every Sunday night, you just can’t help it. You tell yourself you’re going to take a break from the app — for real this time. When you wake up the following morning, you take 15 minutes to find the picture and 30 minutes to construct the caption. You’re letting your followers know that you’ll be taking a break from social media.

I was watching Ian Spalter’s episode on Abstract: The Art of Design when he said something that resonated with me. If you don’t know who Ian Spalter is, he was the Head of Design at Instagram from 2014 to 2019. In his episode, Ian mentioned that even he, the person who was tasked with re-designing the entire platform, faces periods of time where he feels overwhelmed by content on the application and has to take time off. It got me thinking. If the person who made the interface has trouble dealing with this, surely, others have to be affected by this phenomenon too.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how relevant a feature to help manage the implications of the infinite scroll and content addiction might be. It’s happened on other platforms, so why hasn’t social media adopted this behavior?

For example, the Wii suggests that you go outside after playing consistently for prolonged periods of time. Netflix asks you if you’re still watching after several uninterrupted episodes. Many users find this forced interaction to be a pain point, but I believe the intention is in the right place.

Why does Netflix have to question their users every once in a while? For a while, I felt slightly attacked by these prompts. What do you mean by “Am I still watching Narcos?” It’s not normal to watch an entire season in one afternoon?

After some reflection, I’ve reasoned that because our interfaces and technologies are largely concerned with making things easy for a user, we’ve reached a point where, perhaps, things are easy.

By this I mean, it’s easy to binge-watch 5 episodes of your favorite show on Netflix. Tangentially, the modern conventions of “user-centered” design have bred applications that are so easy to use, we consume an extraordinary amount of information in relatively small measures of time.

This case study will take Instagram, specifically, into consideration and discuss a feature that I think could help the platform, and others, take better care of their user’s mental health.

Before I begin my analysis and work through my pitch for a solution, I want to point out that it’s very easy to point the finger and call corporations crooked. I do it all the time (ahem, looking at you, parent company). While this may be plainly true about certain companies (ahem, looking at you again, parent company), I think taking it a step further and proposing solutions is what design is really all about.

Scott Burnham talks about this philosophy a little bit in his book, “Design Hacking.” As users-who-are-designers, we have the privilege of playing a special, vigilante-esque role. By “infiltrating” their practices and “hacking” their designs to work for us, not against us, we can point out systemic flaws that unaware users may be suffering from.

*takes a deep breath*

Well, that was a long-winded, introduction. Sorry, here’s the actual analysis:

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