What is doomscrolling?
Doomscrolling, sometimes also called doomsurfing, refers to constantly checking disturbing or upsetting news articles or videos online, often via social media. This is especially relevant with platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, which use algorithms to show users similar content, sparking engagement yet often trapping users in a perpetual cycle of outrage and anxiety.
Doomscrolling became widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Oxford English Dictionary even made the term one of its Words of the Year in 2020. With people quarantined at home during the lockdown and worried about the pandemic, it was natural for many to turn to their digital devices for information.
What causes doomscrolling?
Part of being a well-informed citizen is keeping abreast of current affairs, which often includes reading about distressing topics such as war, crime, political corruption and climate change. The problem is many people become trapped in a spiral of bad news, leaving them mired in fear, anger or hopelessness. In either case, people might begin to see the world as more dangerous and frightening than it really is. This makes them more anxious and likely to turn to the same doomscrolling habits again and again.
Some causes of doomscrolling include the following:
People tend to look for media that confirms how they're feeling. They might listen to cheerful music when they're happy and depressing music when they're down. The same concept is at play with the information people consume. If they are upset about a certain political development, they tend to seek out news pieces confirming their feelings. This makes people predisposed to clicking links in an article to similar pieces, creating a feedback loop that both reinforces and perpetuates negativity.
It can become a mindless habit and leave people scrolling through screen after screen of doom and gloom, often without even fully registering what's happening.
Learn more here about different types of cognitive bias.
Anxiety, depression, OCD and other mental health issues
Negativity bias can affect individuals struggling with depression, sometimes even more so than people without underlying mental health problems. Absorbing and even deliberately seeking out bad news through doomscrolling can sometimes help people feel less isolated and different -- at least temporarily.
Individuals struggling with anxiety, on the other hand, sometimes use doomscrolling to manage anxiety symptoms. Anxious people tend to want as much information as possible as a way to take back some measure of control. They often fall into the trap of believing that knowing everything about a topic will help them worry less about it. More often, though, this behavior worsens anxiety.
For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and similar conditions, the brain fixates on a topic until it becomes all an individual can think about. This sets up prime conditions for doomscrolling because the compulsion part of OCD is about relieving the anxiety that accompanies the obsessive thinking.
In a world where information is immediately accessible, people can easily find the answers to almost any question. People have become so accustomed to this that when they're faced with uncertainty, they often turn to the web for answers. And sometimes there are no answers -- or there's only fear-inducing speculation.
Poor self-control and bad habits
Almost everyone has at least one bad habit, and bad habits are hard to break. Once someone develops a doomscrolling habit, the brain comes to anticipate the minutes -- or hours -- of scrolling and nudges people toward it when they try to cut back.
Health effects of doomscrolling
Endlessly scrolling through bad news items can negatively affect both mental and physical well-being. Doomscrolling can lead to increased levels of the following:
- catastrophic thinking
Excessive doomscrolling can even trigger panic attacks and feelings similar to post-traumatic stress.
Sleep patterns can also suffer, as many people scroll through news sites and social media apps in bed. This can become a troubling habit when it leads people to stay up later and invokes a fight-or-flight response from negative news when they're supposed to be relaxing to prepare for sleep. If taken to extremes, lack of good-quality sleep can even contribute to health problems such as diabetes, weight gain and high blood pressure.
How to prevent doomscrolling
Here are some digital wellness techniques to help prevent doomscrolling:
- Don't read the comments. While there are occasionally insightful or amusing gems lurking in the comments, readers are more likely to see something that will annoy, anger or otherwise upset them.
- Try cognitive behavioral therapy. This is especially helpful if a mental health condition is causing or contributing to a doomscrolling habit. A qualified therapist can help an individual understand their habits and develop healthy, productive ways to manage symptoms.
- Limit social media use. People who have difficulty controlling the urge to check social feeds should consider setting short alarms -- five or 10 minutes -- that will alert them when it's time to put their phone or tablet away. Android and iOS also offer ways to limit individual app usage.
- Disengage from news and media outlets that cause feelings of doom. Limiting the most stressful triggers can stop the cycle of outrage, fear and anxiety.
- Practice mindfulness. People should stop and ask themselves if there is something else they could be doing each time they start scrolling. People should also note how scrolling makes them feel and how they engage with posts.
- Put down the phone and computer at least two hours before bedtime. Staying up until 2 a.m. scrolling through one negative news item after another won't help anyone -- especially if they already have other worries, such as an important morning presentation at work.
- Seek out feel-good and solutions-focused news stories. Facebook and other social media platforms have robust algorithms. If trained well, they can become powerful tools in stopping the doomscrolling. If a user consistently interacts with positive content, they will see more positive items in their feed -- and vice versa.