In this article:
- Bad news never seems to be in short supply, and our urge to read more of it for hours at a time is called doomscrolling.
- Partially due to evolution, doomscrolling meets our need to know more about our environment so we can prepare for any bad possibilities on the horizon.
- However, the act of doomscrolling can do more harm than good, as it has been linked to increased anxiety, stress, and depression.
- Thankfully, there are ways to give our thumbs — and our minds — a much-needed break from the cycle of doomscrolling.
These days, there never seems to be any shortage of bad news. Whether it’s the worrying COVID-19 numbers in your area, the rising prices of everything except labor, or the war Russia just declared on Ukraine, it’s easy to get lost in despair as you scroll through your social media feed. And before you know it, you’ve been absorbing all this for a full hour or two on your couch.
If you’ve been finding yourself spending a lot of time on social media just absorbing negative news from around the world, it’s likely that you’ve been doomscrolling.
“Doomscrolling” was hailed as one of Macquarie Dictionary’s words of the year back in 2020, and understandably so. 2020 was especially rough — a year from hell that gave us everything from the Australian bushfires, a new wave of long-worrisome police violence on African Americans, and of course, the onset of the pandemic.
But though the term can be traced back to around 2018 on Twitter, our tendency to doomscroll has been around for a while. Before smartphones and scrolling through them became a thing, scientists were studying what came to be known as the “mean world syndrome,” or when people start believing the world is more dangerous than it really is because we keep seeing violence on TV.
More recent studies, however, have drawn a connection between exposure to bad news and a habit of seeking out more information about it.
And with so much information — particularly of the worrisome, horrifying, and dismal kind — now at our fingertips, it’s important to understand why we doomscroll, what doomscrolling does to us, and how we can stop the cycle of doom.
Why We Doomscroll
Interestingly, science tells us that just like gossip, our habit of doomscrolling is partially a product of evolution. For our ancestors, survival didn’t just mean being able to eat and having good shelter — it also meant understanding any potential threats, and what to do if they arise.
If someone had a story about an animal or some ancient creature they encountered out in the wild that could harm or kill them, for example, they’d want to know as much about it as they can, and prepare accordingly. Those who can’t or aren’t able to do that don’t tend to survive.
Fast forward to today, and our brains continue to seek out negative news in an effort to remain in control of our environment.
Sure, there’s not a lot we can immediately do about a country deciding to declare war on another, but our evolution hasn’t quite caught up with the technological advancements of our more globalized society.
Our ancestors, after all, never had to fathom the mysterious ways of stock market movements and credit scores. Neither did they receive information at the speed and volume that we regularly do today.
But they did successfully deal with a lot of challenges in their own lifetimes, and their success led to us being hard-wired to seek out information about things that might harm us today.
At its core, doomscrolling is driven by a fear that something terrible may happen without us seeing it coming — and so we’re compelled to keep scrolling through our feeds and absorbing all the information in it as a way to survive.
So powerful is this need to know more about worrisome events that one news website lost two-thirds of its readers on the day it decided to publish only positive news.
What Doomscrolling Does to Us
The problem with doomscrolling is that it feeds itself: The more you scroll through worrisome news, the more anxious you get, and the more you feel the need to keep learning more about this bad thing and that bad thing to try and ease the anxiety you’re feeling about all the bad things. But it never works.
“People’s brains aren’t well equipped to deal with the information age,” explains Dr. Ilya Monosov, a neuroscience professor and researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine. His team’s research, published just last year, identified specific areas in the brain that help us decide whether to learn more about or hide from unwanted bad events.
“People are constantly checking, checking, checking for news, and some of that checking is totally unhelpful,” he explains. “Our modern lifestyles could be resculpting the circuits in our brain that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive in an uncertain and ever-changing world.”
But while our brains are still adapting to the times, doomscrolling is taking a heavy toll on our minds and bodies.
For starters, research has shown how excessive consumption of COVID-19 news (which tends to be on the negative side because, well, it’s a plague) is associated with higher levels of anxiety. This effect can be especially harmful for those of us who are already prone to anxiety, stress, and depression — getting on your phone and doomscrolling is like walking into quicksand.
Part of it, too, is that we care about people who are like us. A 2021 study found that reading about COVID-19 news affecting others we might identify with tends to put us in a bad mood. Of course, caring about others isn’t a bad thing, but subjecting ourselves to anxiety-induced and -inducing doomscrolling can do more harm than good.
Moreover, just spending too much time on social media in general has been linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety. On a biological level, social media use floods our brain with cortisol, or the stress hormone, which triggers our fight-or-flight response.
What’s happening then is that our bodies perceive a certain danger and are keeping us prepared for it — except it’s just you on your couch, scrolling on your phone. Eventually, this constant state of stress can tire us out and lead to all sorts of physical and mental health problems.
One worrying study, published in 2019, found that even as we get stressed on platforms like Facebook, we continue to turn to it in an effort to deal with the stress the platform is causing.
It doesn’t help that these apps are designed for easy information consumption, which turns absorbing negative news into a mindless activity. When you doomscroll, we tend to not be aware of how all the bad news is affecting our psyche in the moment — we just feel exhausted afterwards.
And even then, the blue light from our screens can keep us from having a good rest.
How to Stop the Cycle of Doom
As hopeless as all the above might make you feel (sorry!), the good news is that it is possible to give our thumbs — and minds — a much-needed break from the vicious cycle of doomscrolling.
The first step, according to Dr. Thea Gallagher of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, is to recognize if and when we do it.
Ask yourself: Do you start your day by scrolling through your Twitter feed even before you’ve gotten up and had breakfast? Do you feel the need to check your phone once in a while just to scroll through updates on COVID-19 school closures, rising homophobia and transphobia, or people suffering from the climate crisis?
From there, it’s important to take a step back and think about why you doomscroll. The feeling it gives us can resemble empowerment to a certain extent. But in truth, the end effect is that many of us just end up feeling defeated and anxious. By checking in with your motivations, you can start being more mindful about what you’re doing, and how you feel about it.
This isn’t to say that it’s not important to know what’s going on in the world, of course. But instead of unconsciously devoting so much time and energy to mindless doomscrolling, experts recommend giving yourself a brief window for scrolling through updates from around the world on issues you care about.
For example, you can set 15 minutes for reading through social media. Once you’re done, put your phone down and try not to do it again for the rest of the day. Though you may feel stressed about disconnecting yourself from urgent events and issues, research shows that staying away from platforms like Facebook can do wonders for lowering your stress levels over time.
It’s also important to tune out clickbait sites that may just be taking advantage of our tendency to doomscroll. Stay away from sites that tend to sensationalize information just to shock or scare us.
If you’re feeling particularly hopeless about the state of the world — and let’s face it, it’s hard not to be — then it’s also important to try and balance it out. Not that you should go on and enter your live, laugh, love era, but it’s good to still look for at least three positive things a day to counter your feelings of despair.
It doesn’t have to be a big thing, either. Maybe you had a really good croissant or had a nice chat with a friend about your favorite anime.
Another powerful suggestion is to do what you can to add a little more good in the world. Giving a heartfelt compliment, for example, can make you and the person you’re talking to feel good, as is letting the frazzled mother and her raging toddler go first at the grocery aisle. These little things can add up and help you feel less powerless about the state of our world.
For those of us in fields that are meant to make a difference, believing in the work that we can do, together, can be a source of hope as well.
Even with all this, however, it is very easy to still fall back into the trap of scrolling for hours at a time, and that’s okay. If you suddenly catch yourself 30 minutes into a mindless doomscrolling session, take a pause and check in with yourself and your feelings.
If you can, try and do something else in that moment. Maybe you need to refill your water bottle or crack open a window. Or perhaps your plants are looking a little thirsty. Whatever it is, do your best to redirect your attention to something else to try and break the habit.
Remind yourself of your time limit. Whether it’s 15 or 20 minutes, try your best to stick with it until it feels more natural to you.
At the end of the day, not all of us have the individual power to put a stop to the madness of what’s going on, and we can’t control how intense everything is — whether it’s war or human rights, the climate crisis or the pandemic. But swimming in the hopelessness we might feel isn’t doing anybody any favors, and won’t help us solve those issues.
There is some good news we can hold on to: It’s that happiness and hope can be contagious if we open ourselves up to those feelings, too. And you could be surprised at what we can achieve when we’re acting from a place of hope and not despair.