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A Doomscrolling Self-Assessment

If you've been immersed in news on worrisome topics, it's time for balance.

Key points

  • Research shows that too much news consumption through scrolling can be harmful for well-being.
  • Experts have offered sound advice and realistic, proactive ways to set limits on scrolling for news.
  • We can set sustainable limits on our news consumption when we personally understand the effect news has on us.
Source: Eren Li/Pexels
Source: Eren Li/Pexels

Have you been staying up too late scrolling through news updates on worrisome topics? It can be hard to turn away from the latest on the debt ceiling crisis, killer tornados, mass shootings, nuclear threats, or even the scores of sport events—and the suspense is addictive. Research increasingly shows that being hooked into 24/7 news consumption is harmful for our well-being, mentally, physically, and socially.

The headline of a recent American Psychological Association survey declares “Media Overload Is Hurting Our Mental Health.” The report asserts, “Psychologists are seeing an increase in news-related stress; installing a few key media guardrails can help.” Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, released an advisory last week stating that social media is contributing to a youth mental health crisis. With the average American teenager spending 3.5 hours a day on social media, Murthy recommends that parents create tech-free zones and model responsible online behavior themselves. He also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly acceleratedhow much time we spend on social media.

Most of us probably know that uncontrolled preoccupation with news is bad for us. Escaping our loneliness or helplessness by watching the world from afar, we can end up feeling even lonelier and more helpless. In a study, “Caught in a Dangerous World: Problematic News Consumption and Its Relationship to Mental and Physical Ill-being,” we can examine a vicious feedback loop that grips us. “Doomscrolling” makes us even more anxious, depressed, and lonely.

Helpful experts have given us plenty of guidance on how to break free of the cycle, set limits on doomscrolling—and just stop.

But I know that telling people to just stop, or to set limits on the news we infuse is not enough for sustainable change. Indeed, I’m not trying to scare anyone away from doomscrolling by locking our phone in a safe every night so we can sleep. Instead, I’m encouraging a fair and kind look at our scrolling habits. I offer 12 questions to explore the way we engage with the news in hopes that we gain insight into what we are doing to ourselves.

Before starting into the questions, it is helpful to define what doomscrolling is. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, doomscrolling is “the activity of spending a lot of time looking at your phone or computer and reading bad or negative news stories.”

You and the News: A Brief Self-Assessment

Your self-awareness is key to managing your scrolling habits. Below are 12 questions to put your news consumption into perspective by honestly observing your mindset, moods, behaviors, or the content you consume.

1. Have you noticed that you’re spending more time scrolling for news than during the pre-pandemic days?

Yes __ No __ About the Same__

Quick fact: More than eight in 10 Americans get news from digital devices. Social media use increased during the pandemic. At least seven in 10 Americans visit their news platforms at least once a day. (Pew Research Center Survey, 2021)

2. How much time doomscrolling do you typically spend on a weekday?

  • Up to 1 hour.
  • 2 hours.
  • 3 hours or more.

Quick facts: The answer is mixed on how much time is the right amount to spend on consuming news. Some experts recommend no more than 30 minutes a day. But the actual time spent may not be the real issue. A TIME article states: “So, how much screen time is too much for adults? That’s the wrong question, experts say. ‘The content you’re consuming actually matters more than the overall time you spend on your phone,’ says Yalda T. Uhls, an assistant adjunct professor of psychology at UCLA and former movie executive who studies the health effects of screen time.”

3. Do you scroll for news on your job or at work? Or do you procrastinate by scrolling? How does this make you feel?

4. Do the stories you follow make you feel helpless or hopeless? Do these stories cause you to lose faith in humanity or the decency of people in general?

Quick fact: Experts encourage us to find proactive ways to change our sense of helplessness. For example, if we are worried about the effects of climate change on the birds we love, we can take action through advocacy or volunteering to help save their habitats.

5. Have you noticed that your time spent doomscrolling drains your energy or focus from other activities you would rather be doing? (Not just what you should be doing, but rather, what you want to be doing?)

6. What are the activities from which scrolling pulls your energy, time, and focus? Indeed, what do you feel you are neglecting? A few common life-affirming activities that we might be missing out on include:

  • Having a more active social life.
  • Spending time with a friend or loved one.
  • Playing with a pet.
  • Taking a walk. Being in nature. A sense of wonder.
  • Listening to music, watching a movie, playing a game.
  • Creating something new and important
  • Sleeping
  • Self-care and fitness
  • Keeping up with work requirements

7. Have you ever not answered a call or text from a friend or family member because you were caught up in a news story? How often does this happen?

8. How often do you turn down a social invitation because you wanted to spend the evening being absorbed in a story/news event online or on TV?

9. What do you personally believe is a fair amount of time to spend scrolling through news or watching news each day?

10. What social media platform draws you in the most (or is the hardest to resist)?

Quick fact: Facebook remains the largest contender, with 31% of US adult users of social media surveyed. That's followed by YouTube at 22%, Tik Tok at 21%, and Twitter at 13%.

11. Identify the feelings that make you more susceptible to being sucked in to doomscrolling:

  • I tend to news scroll when I feel lonely or left out.
  • I tend to news scroll when I feel bored.
  • I tend to news scroll when I feel anxious or worried.
  • I tend to news scroll when I feel agitated, irritable, or angry.
  • I tend to news scroll when I am curious or excited about a topic or event.
  • All of the feelings listed above are about equal in frequency.

12. What are ways that you can realistically set limits on your scrolling? The following list is a collection of recommended measures that could help pull you away from scrolling:

  • Proactively spending more time with friends or loved ones.
  • Designating a friend or colleague whom you can talk to about the news and might reinforce your limits around doomscrolling. (And you can reinforce your friend’s habits too.)
  • Helping others, volunteering, or social action for a cause (related to news that's triggering you).
  • Getting off news alerts and notifications.
  • Not bringing the phone into the bedroom before you go to sleep, or powering down your devices before you go to bed.
  • Using other apps to switch your attention from the news.
  • Setting an alarm to let you know time’s up.
  • Limiting online news sources and unfollowing the ones that stress you out.
  • Just being more mindful of when you are logging in.
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