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Our Brains Are Hardwired to Doomscroll: What Can We Do?

Active effort will let you recapture your news feed and your emotions.

Source: Shutterstock

Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms that describe continuous scrolling or surfing through negative news, even when it is depressing, demoralizing, distressing, or painful. Many people have found themselves continuously reading bad news about COVID-19 or the protests and police violence without the ability to stop or step back.

This problem is a result of how the human brain is wired. Our brains instinctively pay attention to any potentially dangerous situation as part of the biological imperative of survival. Our brains are designed to constantly scan the horizon for potential threats. Since threats are more important to our survival than other information, we pay more attention to the negative things than the positive.

Anxiety and stress are the byproducts of uncertainty about the safety of the environment. Uncertainty triggers the desire to search for information to feel more in control. When we search for information in this state, we are particularly sensitive to distressing or emotionally threatening news. Rather than increase our sense of control, negative news validates our fears, heightens our anxiety, and increases our internal “need to know.”

The sheer volume of information triggers more anxiety because it’s impossible to keep up. Psychologically, we are not only anxious about the environment, but we become preoccupied with the sense that we are missing something that is vitally important to our survival. So we keep looking.

This creates a downward spiral effect similar to what we see in depression. Searching for news in an environment brimming with scary and distressing content triggers anxiety. Anxiety increases the need to know to feel in control. The need to know triggers more environmental scanning. With so much negative news, this becomes a cyclical process. The news further ramps up the anxiety, which rivets the attention, and so on, and so on.

This downward emotional spiral will only stop when we actively override our instinctive tendencies. This type of self-regulation is easier said than done. It takes significant cognitive energy to overcome the instinctive and emotional drivers of behavior. If you use the metaphor of the elephant as the instinctive, emotional brain and the rider as the cognitive, rational brain, it’s easy to see that what we have is an elephant run amuck and the rider will have a big job to get the beast back under control.

Being socially-distanced, “pursued” by an unseen enemy (COVID-19), and distressed by mounting social disparities, the sense of trust in the environment, and the official institutions that are supposed to provide order and safety, are seriously eroded. The sense of danger and uncertainty is combined with the lack of social support from social activities that normally provide comfort, creating a volatile and reactive emotional baseline.

All this rampant internal emotion is compounded by technology. Our digital information, from Google searches to social media news feeds, is a self-fulfilling prophecy since our behavior influences the algorithms that curate what we see. Searching for danger will increase "threatening" content, amplifying perceptions of danger and vulnerability and further increasing negative emotions. We are drawn to danger signals like a moth to a flame in that primal attempt to feel batter, unwittingly feeding ourselves the very emotions we wish to avoid.

The more anxious and stressed we become, the more vulnerable we are to conspiracy theories and misinformation because they offer up “answers” to what is actually unknown and in most cases, unknowable.

It will take a conscious intervention by the scroller to beat Google and recapture both your news feeds and your emotions. Otherwise, the nature of online information flows will continue to feed the elephant.

The solution requires an active and concerted effort to stop self-reinforcing behavior. Start by checking in with yourself to make sure that whatever you’re scrolling is actually new and useful information—much of what is out there is just a variation of the same thing or not relevant to your actual safety. Start to monitor the emotional impact of scrolling no matter what the source. Start to front-load happy stuff to provide an emotional buffer.

Stepping away can help reset your brain, whether you close your eyes for a moment of mindfulness or completely log out. The break will help you to be more critical and less emotional when you evaluate what you’re seeing. Ask yourself:

  • Is this relevant and useful information, or am I engaging in the online equivalent of rubber-necking?
  • How do I feel?
  • Is doomscrolling interfering with other things I'd rather be doing or causing me problems (like being angry or unpleasant to be around)?
  • Am I triangulating information to make sure it’s accurate before I get carried away with emotions, or worse, start sharing?

You can develop your own interventions, whether that’s setting timers or scheduling breaks, blocking or muting people, or avoiding inflammatory sources that trigger emotions, not reason. Learn to manage your information consumption to support your mental health.

This is not saying to put your head in the sand or ignore important events, but if you monitor news so that it is necessary and useful, you will be able to avoid many of the paralyzing emotions that, in fact, make you less effective in the rest of your life, from relationships and work to social advocacy. Anger and fear diminish your ability to feel empathy for others and hamper your compassion, understanding, and ability to listen to different points of view. These are qualities we badly need during times of crisis.

Recognize that, thanks to the elephant, we are essentially hard-wired to doomscroll. Don’t beat yourself up. Just increase your awareness and control over your information consumption. Our brains were designed to survive in very different conditions: Looking for saber-toothed tigers on the Savannah, not parsing through the firehose of information (and misinformation) that is flowing 24/7 during a pandemic and social upheaval.