Even if you haven’t heard the term “doomscrolling” before, I’d bet you’ve participated in it. The glare from your phone lights your face with its eerie glow, your thumb seems to have a mind of its own and scrolls on and on, and a pit of despair forms in your stomach. But despite all this, you just can’t stop. After all, it’s 2020—doomscrolling has become a global pastime.
These days, it seems like we’re a glutton for punishment when it comes to bad news. Even though the headlines, tweets, and comments make us depressed and sleepless, we scroll on with the morbid curiosity of people passing a car crash. With a seemingly never-ending list of social, political, and economic car crashes every day, it’s no surprise that this takes a toll on our mental health.
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 scrolling through coronavirus-related content, 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.
So it shouldn’t be a shock that doomscrolling isn’t good for us. And unlike other unhealthy things in large quantities, like candy and fried foods, doomscrolling doesn’t even feel good. So why can’t we stop?
Doomscrolling gives us a sense of control.
During times of uncertainty and uncontrollability, we crave any sense of control. When we scroll endlessly through the news, even when it’s bad news, it makes us feel like we’re gaining information or that we’re creating a plan. This may be true for the first few headlines, but once you're on the seventeenth article about spiking cases or race-related riots, how much value is each one adding?
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, celebrity gossip, or a motivational headline. These tasty crumbs are enough to keep us following the doomscrolling trail.
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 the lotto, small, sporadic wins are designed to keep you buying more tickets. 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. 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 Doomscrolling
So how do you put down the phone and make it out of the doomscrolling fog in one piece? How do you keep the habit from doing you more harm than good?
The goal here is not to crawl under a rock and pretend that everything is peachy and never look at the news again. Nor is it to disconnect from the social and political happenings that require our participation now more than ever.
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.
Many of us participate in infinite-scroll mode out of muscle memory, where our thumbs just scroll and our eyes just scan 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 gardening group about their favorite plants
- Go to Twitter to see the latest science news from your favorite scientist
- Go to Instagram to see pictures of your friend’s new baby
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.
We set specific times in the day to work, exercise, and sleep. Why not set a social media time, 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 recent study found that 2.5 hours 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.
A lot of doomscrolling we do is a response to an urge for 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 conversation or to hang out with a friend one-on-one (and distanced, of course).
Enter the silver living of 2020: video conferencing. With everyone video chatting these days, 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 a long, disorienting nap? 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!” 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 out there!
5. Get in touch with yourself.
Another thing doomscrolling 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 hungry, or that you’re sitting uncomfortably, or that you’re feeling lonely and haven’t talked to your family in a while. 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. I don’t necessarily mean that you need to meditate, or download an app, or take a yoga class. 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.