As we’ve all been surrounded by tragedy (pandemic, protests, racism, financial problems, wars, inflation, recession), avoiding negative news seems impossible. After all, we have to stay informed for our own safety, right?
Unfortunately, though, the situation is still looking bad, especially in our country where several states are still under high alert. Many of us turn to scroll on our smartphone as a getaway from the world – but is it really working that well?
Turns out, any one of us can become addicted to scrolling through negative information – and now this habit has a name too: doomscrolling.
What is doomscrolling?
Specialists describe doomscrolling as a tendency to browse and scroll through bad news that triggers negative emotions. This type of information usually causes sadness, anger, frustration, or disappointment. You can think of it as a form of addiction since those who get caught up in such habits can’t help but feed off of this negativity.
The term ‘doomscrolling’ was first used by journalist Karen Ho who was constantly advising her Twitter readers to ‘stop doomscrolling’ and go to sleep instead.
Unfortunately, it’s nothing new either. Doomscrolling has been around ever since social media platforms and smartphones became popular. However, the life-changing events of 2020 skyrocketed the frequency of this habit which turned it into a real problem – a problem that can no longer be ignored.
It is perfectly understandable, claims Ken Yeager, associate professor of medicine and leader of the Stress, Trauma, and Resilience Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
He compares doomscrolling to watching a train wreck: impossible to look away, yet tragic enough to barely look at it.
We all doomscroll – but why?
Sometimes I find myself scrolling through my Facebook feed and I don’t even know how I ended up there. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one – and it’s crucial to understand and address the real cause behind this destructive habit.
Here are the most common factors which cause doomscrolling:
Trying to make sense of everything
We’re living in a precarious, unprecedented situation that makes even top experts feel overwhelmed. This general sense of uncertainty can make us feel hopeless and scared.
Our solution? To try and regain control over what’s going on.
The first step towards gaining control over a situation is to understand it. Consciously or not, we start looking for information that helps us figure out what’s going on. That’s when we start scrolling… and never stop.
Smartphones help us connect with others and now this feature is more helpful than ever.
However, it doesn’t necessarily mean we feel connected too.
We all love relating to other people and feeling that we belong to a group. If I love writing and I come across someone describing their writer’s block on social media, it instantly makes me feel connected to that person – even though we’ve never met.
Doomscrolling may seem like a good place to find people whose stories, emotions, and struggles relate to yours right now.
Getting some reassurance
Okay, so we’ve already established that doomscrolling is all about tragedy and negativity.
However, some people turn to it because they need reassurance that things aren’t as bad as they seem.
Let’s say your news feed shows that a terrible earthquake destroyed a city on the other side of the planet. Sure, you feel sorry for all the people living there – but you’re also glad you’re not one of them, right?
The same principle goes for the current coronavirus situation, violence, protests, or politics.
Preparing for the future
Sometimes being on top of the (negative) news can make us feel stronger. After all, knowledge is power, right?
For example, if your state is at risk for a new wildfire, you get to pack your emergency bags ahead of those who don’t check the news as often.
This is beneficial and it’s the main reason why all of us are spending so much time on our smartphones. However, this habit can easily turn into an obsession which might do more harm than good.
Managing your anxiety
Along with depression, anxiety is the most common mental illness in our country.
Sometimes scrolling can have a similar impact to playing with a stress ball: it reduces anxiety. Unlike stress balls, though, scrolling overloads our brains with negative images and text that ultimately backfire, increasing your anxiety even more.
This is a very dangerous vicious cycle that needs to be interrupted as soon as you become aware of it.
Unfortunately, I think we’ve all been here at some point – and it makes sense too!
Maybe you’re waiting for the bus, at a meeting or you’re enjoying your morning bathroom session. All of these moments have one thing in common: a smartphone.
Jeff Gardere, psychologist and course director of Behavioral Medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, NYC, agrees that being on lockdown for so many months also contributed to this ‘epidemic’ of doomscrolling.
This brings us to our next cause…
Did you know that the dopamine levels in your blood literally increase when you get a notification on your phone? The same goes for each scrolling session even though the aftermath is tragic.
According to Yeager, this sudden rush can make us check our phones 75 to 100 times per day. And the number only increases if your browsing sessions are filled with negative headlines.
Content creators know the impact they can have on their readers. They know tragic stories, shocking headlines, and big announcements trigger powerful emotions and might even bring a rush of adrenaline. All of these feelings create some sort of addiction that ‘glues’ our hands to the smartphone. Next time you check your smartphone, remember this factor too.
Doomscrolling and its health risks
Okay, you’re scrolling through social media a lot, so what?
Well, unfortunately, this toxic habit can have some serious effects on your mental health. The most common ones are:
- This is a cognitive disorder that alters your vision of the surrounding world; it might make you see things much worse or more dangerous than they really are and may lead to paranoia;
- Aside from being the number one mental illness in our country, depression is even more likely to occur when doomscrolling. If you still think depression isn’t a serious problem, check out this article: 9 Myths You Might Believe About Alzheimer’s Disease.
- Sleep problems. Experts recommend avoiding any type of technology at least two hours before going to bed; if tragic news also makes you feel anxious, you might develop insomnia in the long run.
- Relationship problems. Doomscrolling can reduce social interactions with your special someone even if you’re at home 24/7. Since it can also alter your perception of the world, you might have plenty of arguments as you’re trying to impose the same vision on your loved ones.
- Doing something you’ll regret. The saying ‘Never believe everything you read on the internet’ has never been more accurate than it is today. Fake news, conspiracy theories, or delusional beliefs have pushed people’s boundaries and made many of them act irresponsibly and even commit crimes.
How to quit (or reduce) your doomscrolling
If you think you’ve crossed the line when it comes to this toxic habit, it’s time to make a positive difference and stop. Here are a few useful steps you can take:
- Download digital health apps
Yeager strongly recommends so-called ‘digital health’ apps which help you create a good schedule when using your smartphone. These apps block your access to certain selected apps (or your phone altogether) for a certain period of time.
Some apps even took things a step further by locking you out of the phone if you pass your self-imposed scrolling limit.
- List alternative activities
As I’ve mentioned earlier, much of your doomscrolling sessions are probably happening when you’re bored or on a break. You can create a list of other enjoyable activities to do during that time: call a friend, sit in the sun, enjoy a snack, or take a short walk.
- Give yourself hard limits
Scrolling is so deeply impregnated in our brains that it will take real effort to let it go. If you can’t cut it off cold turkey (which would be the best option, by the way), limit yourself to the most reasonable amount of time you can take right now.
If you feel emotionally unstable or can’t understand your own actions anymore, it might be time to seek professional help. Attending therapy sessions can make a huge difference in your life, as well as your loved ones.
How much time are you spending on your phone? If you can’t seem to let your phone down, you should think about another activity to replace doomscrolling with, such as reading. Here’s a good book that will make you happier!