If you’re like most Americans, the first thing you did this morning was check your phone. You scrolled through Facebook, watched stories on Instagram and maybe browsed a couple of news sites. You were reminded of the growing coronavirus death toll, the failing economy, racial tensions and climate change. Later, at lunch, you picked up your phone and browsed again. New posts, same negative themes. You checked again before dinner, after dinner and while lying in bed wondering why you couldn’t fall asleep.
The term “doomscrolling” and its cousin term “doomsurfing” refer to the act of endlessly scrolling through our devices, consuming upsetting news multiple times throughout the day. Online platforms contain unlimited content, and our impulse to peruse this content for hours on end is not only a massive waste of time, but also damaging to our mental health. A recent article published in The New York Times reported that doomscrolling can make us feel more anxious, depressed, angry, and less socially connected. So why do we keep doing it?
According to Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author, “For some, doomscrolling becomes a ‘unsatisfying addiction’ that promises safety, security or certainty when, in fact, the ever-changing, melodramatic news provides the opposite.” Unsurprisingly, doomscrolling has dramatically increased during the pandemic. Answers to the many uncertainties of 2020, or perhaps any morsel of good news, seem to be just one more click away. The problem is that they aren’t, and instead we are left with an inevitable feeling of unease.
Social media companies design their platforms to maximize our engagement, which in turn increases their profits. They use algorithms to present us with content based on what we have consumed in the past so we are more likely to click again and again. For many users, addiction to these platforms can become exacerbated by the abundance of “doomsday news” circulating in 2020. Evolutionarily, humans are “wired to look out for threats” says psychologist Dr. Amelia Aldao. “The more time we spend scrolling, the more we find those dangers, the more we get sucked into them, the more anxious we get.” When we consume negative content, the feed becomes saturated with more of it. It’s easy to see how this can become a vicious cycle.
However, the media aren’t the only ones responsible for perpetuating doomscrolling. Humans also have a tendency to fixate on the negative news even in light of the positive, according to research scientist Mesfin Belkalu. He notes, “Since the 1970s, we know of the ‘mean world syndrome’—the belief that the world is a more dangerous place to live in than it actually is—as a result of long-term exposure to violence-related content on television.” Doomscrolling can lead us to believe that some of the world’s current events are worse than they actually are.
If we aren’t mindful about what we consume and how often we consume it, we will ultimately become overwhelmed with feelings of negativity about the state of the world. If this description seems all too familiar, you aren’t alone. Luckily, there are an abundance of strategies recommended by experts to break the doomscrolling cycle.
The easiest way is to limit your access to news headlines and social media. And yes, you can do this and still remain informed on important news. Most phones have a feature in their settings that allows you to set time limits on the usage of social networking apps. Alternatively, you can set aside a certain amount of time, say 10 minutes, to check the news and other websites for important updates and then stop checking after the time is up.
It’s also a good idea to rethink the way that you spend “free” time. On breaks between classes, go for a walk without a device, exercise, or if you must use technology, use it to connect with others in a positive way. Follow users who promote positive messages, and mute or unsubscribe from those who consistently cause you stress or anxiety. Most of the time, simply reminding yourself of the dangerous effects of doomscrolling will help you to avoid it. During a year of global hardship, pain, and isolation, an hourly scroll through your endless feed for news updates simply isn’t worth the added layer of stress.