a close up of a person holding a cell phone.

Doomscrolling: What It Is and How to Stop It

Amber Murphy

Scrolling through social media is no longer just about watching your friend’s family vacation or posting photos of your fantastic dinner. More and more people go to social media to get their daily news, but most predominantly, bad news. While it’s okay to stay informed about world events, obsessing over them has a new term: “Doomscrolling.”

Doomscrolling (or Doomsurfing) is defined as the act of scrolling through social media to find out about the latest catastrophe. This act only leaves people feeling depressed and anxious. But since they want to know more, they keep doing it in a toxic loop.

There are plenty of reasons explaining why this happens and how it can be bad for mental health. Let’s first understand where this term comes from and why people decided it was time to give it a name:

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What Is Doomscrolling?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary already has a definition of this phenomenon. “Doomsurfing and Doomscrolling are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll to bad news, even though that news is saddening, dishearting or depressing.”

It comes from combining the word doom and the word scrolling or surfing, which refers to the digital arena. This doesn’t necessarily mean fake news, although fake news only helps make this phenomenon worse.

As soon as the word became public, people started feeling related to it (and who can blame them?) Just a quick look at Twitter will tell you how many people know what this is and how it has affected them. But why did it become such a hit in 2020?

How Did Doomscrolling Become Relevant in 2020?

Woman looking down, reading news on phone

While it’s not necessarily something new, it undoubtedly became prevalent in 2020.

2020 was definitively a year with a lot of bad news. We had COVID-19, massive deaths, unemployment, protests, and climate change, to name a few. So, it’s not difficult to find bad news when you have a full range of catastrophes to choose from.

And with everyone under quarantine, people spent more time doing what people do when boredom kicks-in: using social media. The average time spent on social media increased even among children, around 50% more than usual.

So, when you have a year filled with world uncertainty and mix it with millions of people staying at home, you get doomscrolling.

Why Doomscrolling Happens

Woman having coffee while doomscrolling on her phone

Short answer: Our brain loves bad news, even if it makes us feel bad in the long run.

We tend to respond faster and remember better negative events. According to a study, the amygdala (which controls the fight or flight response) has two-thirds of its neurons dedicated to processing negative emotions.

Loretta Breuning, a former professor of management at California State University, East Bay, and author of Habits of a Happy Brain explains why the brain tends to follow troubling information. She says, “In a state of nature, our survival depends on finding rewards and avoiding harm, but avoiding harm takes priority.”

To understand this, we need to consider our primitive past.

In the wild, fear meant survival. Hearing a weird noise in the dark and thinking it’s a hungry lion instead of a clumsy squirrel might have saved more than just a few of our ancestors. And knowing more about hungry lions means knowing how to defend yourself and continue to exist.

Our brain loves hearing about negative stories because this used to guarantee us another day to live.

The media knows this all too well. Thanks to the digital era, the news is becoming more visual and sensationalist to catch people’s attention.

Our brains are predisposed to negative events. That’s why it’s so hard to take a break and search for positive news.

We are prone to want to know more about disasters and how we watch news shows that.

Doomscrolling Effects

Like you would expect, staying in tune with the latest disasters has adverse psychological effects. Many of these effects are already present with social media use, but doomsurfing makes it worse.

A lot of research shows how social media can leave people feeling envy (which leads to anxiety) and depression. But a 2019 study suggests that social media can positively affect mental health when there’s no emotional connection. But of course, doomscrolling is all about emotional connection.

Some of the news are so impressive that they leave many people feeling shocked and drained. And since this constantly happens throughout the day, it leaves people feeling terrible about the state of the world.

Some of the effects of doomscrolling are:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Sleeping Problems
  • Aggressive Behavior
  • Feelings of Isolation
  • Depression

So, as you can see, the effects are very severe. But don’t worry, there are solutions to this practice that are easy and quick to do.

What to Do to Stop Doomscrolling

The first step is to acknowledge the issue and tackle it.

Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perlman School of Medicine, shed light on this issue in a conversation with health. She says that “Most people don’t realize they’re even doing this.”

Gallagher continues to explain, “People have a question, they want an answer, and assume getting it will make them feel better. Many think that it will be helpful, but they end up feeling worse afterward.”

Like with most bad habits, it’s essential to recognize and accept these habits to overcome them.

How do these habits look? Well, if you wake up every day to check how many people are getting infected with COVID-19, that’s called doomscrolling—having a desire to stay up twenty minutes before going to bed to check the state of the country? Bad news, that’s another way of doing doomsurfing.

You don’t need to know every little detail about every world catastrophe.

One way to know if you’re doomscrolling is by asking yourself the following question: “Does this information makes me feel empowered for having this useful knowledge, or am I feeling stressed and hopeless?” If you’re getting sad and drained, you know that you’re dealing with doomscrolling.

Once you recognize this, it’s essential to understand and accept your feelings afterward. Once you know your behavior and your feelings, you can take the necessary steps to overcome this.

Tips to Reduce Doomscrolling:

Woman lying in bed reading news on phone

Thankfully, there isn’t just one way to stop this.

There are many things you can do right now to prevent doomsurfing from taking control of our lives. Some of them are:

Limit your social media time: The most critical step is to reduce your time on social media. Some apps can help you prevent social media usage. Anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes a day that you designate only to watch the news, it’s more than enough.

Engaging in meaningful conversations: A study from 2016, shows that being a passive social media user can lead to having more feelings of stress, depression, and envy. But those who actively engage with other people seem to have a more positive experience.

Having real-life conversations with people around you: Human interaction will always be beneficial to your mental health. Talking to your family members or close friends is necessary to feel better, mostly when you talk about the things that are troubling you. If you go outside to talk to people, remember to follow the WHO recommendations to avoid spreading COVID-19.

Meditation: Yes, another article recommending you to do meditation. Meditating just for a few minutes can help you reduce your stress levels and make you feel less anxious.

Train yourself to see the positive side of things: At first, it might feel weird to do this. But just taking a moment to think of positive things can help you remember the good in the world. Before you go to bed, try to think of three things that you feel grateful for. It can be as little as watching a great movie or having a laugh with your mother.

Bottom Line

None of us can ignore the state of the world. And it’s okay to find yourself scrolling Twitter to find out what’s been happening around you. After all, we are literally wired to want to know stuff like that.

But with so much information and sensationalist news all over the place, you might be suffering the effects of doomscrolling. And like we’ve seen in this article, those effects are nothing but negative.

You should reduce your social media usage in general.

Take this time to do exercise, meditate, do artistic activities, and appreciate life as a whole.

If there’s something that 2020 has taught us, it’s that life is precious and vulnerable at the same time. Instead of focusing on what is going wrong, take some time to consider what we can do now to prevent this in the future.

From this moment, start appreciating everything in your life, and if you need to take your phone away to do that, it might be best to do so.

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