The screen casts an eerie glow on your face. You can't tear your eyes away from the bad news. You feel depressed and angry, but you can't stop scrolling. Why do we do this to ourselves, and how can we stop?
Chances are, you’ve already heard the term “doomscrolling.” Even if you haven’t, I bet you’ve found yourself a victim of its morbid seduction. Your thumb hovers over the infinite scroll of your newsfeed, the glare from your phone lighting your face with an eerie glow, and a sense of despair settles in your belly.
After all, it’s 2020—doomscrolling has become a global pastime.
We can’t seem to tear ourselves away from bad news. We read headline after headline, tweet after tweet, comment after comment, and even though it makes us depressed and sleepless, we scroll on with the morbid curiosity of people driving by a car crash. And lately, there seem to be never-ending social, political, and economic car crashes every day. It’s no surprise that this takes a toll on our mental health.
We scroll on with the morbid curiosity of people driving by a car crash. Except there seem to be never-ending social, political, and economic car crashes every day.
A hot-off-the-press study on American college students’ phone use and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic found that as the news on coronavirus ramped up in March, so did students’ phone use and anxiety levels. In Russia, almost 24,000 people responded to a survey on news consumption about COVID-19, and the results showed that the more time people spent reading coronavirus-related news, the more anxious they were, even when their usual anxiety levels were taken into account.
Thousands of German study participants also demonstrated more depression and anxiety with increased news consumption. Even before the pandemic started, Lebanese research participants had more depression, anxiety, and insomnia when they had more problematic social media use.
Clearly, doomscrolling is not good for us. And unlike other things that are unhealthy in large quantities, like cake and coffee, doomscrolling doesn’t even feel good. So why on earth do we keep doing it?
Why do we doomscroll?
Doomscrolling gives us a sense of control
During times of uncertainty and uncontrollability, we crave any sense of control. When we scroll endlessly through bad news, it makes us feel like we’re getting more and more informed, or that we're doing better and better planning. This may be true for the first few headlines, but once you're on the seventeenth article about spiking cases, how much value is each one adding?
Doomscrolling is similar to worrying. We do it compulsively because it gives us a false sense of control.
In this way, doomscrolling is similar to worrying. We do it compulsively because it gives us a false sense of control.
Every once in a while, something rewarding keeps us hooked
Have you noticed that even when you’re doomscrolling through mostly bad news, something rewarding will turn up every once in a while? It could be a funny meme, an attractive person, or a motivational headline. These testy crumbs are enough to keep us following the doomscrolling trail.
In psychology, we call this a variable reinforcement schedule.
In psychology, we call this a variable reinforcement schedule. When you reward someone every once in a while at unpredictable times, that pattern is most likely to keep them hooked. When you play a casino slot machine, sporadic wins are designed to keep you playing. It's the same sort of dynamic with Twitter's infinite scroll.
We crave connection in a time when there isn’t much
Of course, the “social” in “social media” is the gasoline on the fire. Many of us have felt isolated for months. Extroverts and introverts alike crave connection with others. So when we see posts from our friends, even if they’re rage-tweeting about something awful and outside of our control, we want to connect with it—and with hundreds of other similar posts—as we keep scrolling.
How to interrupt the momentum of doomscrolling
So how do you stop being a doomscrolling zombie? How do you keep the habit from doing you more harm than good?
First, I should clarify that the goal is not to crawl under a rock and pretend there is no bad news. Nor is it to disconnect from the social and political happenings that require our participation now more than ever.
Do get informed and participate in civic life. Do interact with friends. Do enjoy memes—we all need a little laughter these days.
But let’s do it in a way that is intentional, that creates value for our lives, and not in a way that just makes us depressed and comatose. Here’s how.
1. Go to newsfeeds and social media with a specific purpose
Don’t just go into infinite-scrolling mode out of muscle memory, where you read the news simply because you don’t have a more pressing thing to do.
Instead, have a purpose in mind. Here are a few examples.
- Go to your news sources to see what a particular politician’s campaign message is
- Go to Facebook to ask your knitting group about knitting technique
- Go to Twitter to see the latest science news from your favorite scientist
- Go to Instagram to see pictures of your friend’s new dog
If you scroll with a purpose, you’ll end up being engaged with something you care about rather than passively drawn down the doom-and-gloom rabbit hole.
2. Set a time limit and designate a time of day
You give your cat a litter box so she does her business within the confines of the box and not all over the house. Give your brain a “litter box,” too. Encourage your brain to deal with bad news within the confines of a time limit. This way, you get to satisfy your morbid curiosity, but your doomscrolling won’t run rampant throughout your whole day.
A large-scale study found that more than 30 minutes of coronavirus-specific news consumption led to significant increases in anxiety. Let this guide you in setting a time limit for yourself!
A recent study found that 2.5 hrs of media consumption was the threshold (at least for German adults) between having mild depressive symptoms versus moderate depressive symptoms. Another large-scale study with Russian adults found that more than 30 minutes of coronavirus-specific news consumption led to significant increases in anxiety. Let this guide you in setting a time limit for yourself!
3. Connect with people one-on-one
In part, we doomscroll because we crave social connection, even though scrolling through bad news and divisive comments isn't a very effective way to get it. A better way is to have a good old fashioned one-on-one conversation or to hang out in a small group.
One silver lining of 2020 is that videoconferencing is now a norm. So why not set up a weekly virtual happy hour with colleagues? Or have a virtual coffee date with a friend who lives far from you? This way, the next hour may be filled with punny jokes instead of helpless rage.
4. Get outside
Have you ever stepped outside after a long day in the office (or house) and felt like you were suddenly waking up after being comatose? In a way, you were.
When light hits your eyes, this information is sent directly to the brain with the message: “It’s daytime! It’s time to be alert and alive!”
When light hits your eyes, this information is sent directly to the brain with the message: “It’s daytime! It’s time to be alert and alive!” This tells your brain to rally the troops and give you boosts of energy, alertness, and even a good mood. In fact, light therapy is sometimes used to treat depression.
Even on an overcast day, it’s usually much brighter outside than inside. So get outside!
5. Get in touch with yourself
Another thing zombies lack is self-awareness. When you doomscroll mindlessly, you don’t notice how you feel, physically or emotionally. You might not notice that you’re thirsty, or that your neck is not in the most ergonomic position on the couch, or that you’re feeling lonely and miss your family. You may not even realize that obsessively doomscrolling is your mind’s way of trying, and probably failing, to fill a hole.
The antidote is to spend some time being mindful. This doesn’t necessarily mean meditation. You don’t need to download any apps or take any classes. Being mindful simply means being here and now. It gives you a chance to get in touch with your body and emotions, so you can figure out what you really need.
My previous episode on "3 Mini Mindfulness Exercises" will show you some simple mindfulness practices.