It’s 2 a.m. and millions of Americans lie awake on their phones. Some might be reading about the climate crisis or domestic political woes or, perhaps, the war in Ukraine. Others might even be self-assessing their own medical symptoms on Reddit or scrolling through a sea of reasons why their current relationship might not work out. The heart-pounding feeling of scrolling down a rabbit hole can be uncomfortable and discouraging. However, people often find that once they get started they just can’t look away. This practice is often referred to as “doomscrolling,” and is an addictive habit that leaves everyone feeling awful. Nevertheless, social media users often find it difficult to shut off their phones and cut off the negative feelings doom-scrolling can elicit.
Getting sucked into a negative news cycle is a widely experienced phenomenon. In the wake of the coronavirus, The Oxford Dictionary officially added doomscrolling to its pages, and while the term did exist before the pandemic, the global crisis brought this practice into the spotlight. All of the attention the term has attracted begs the question: can doomscrolling cause actual harm or might there be some benefits to this unconscious habit?
People Don’t Choose to Doomscroll
Doomscrolling was in its heyday at the height of the pandemic. With many people stuck at home in isolation — often with access to a constant stream of social media posts and online news journals — it became a universal pastime. Initially, people needed that steady stream of information to stay informed about the pandemic. As time went on, however, doomscrolling grew into a soothing compulsion. While there once was a time when social media users were driven to doomscrolling by a real need to access answers, now the habit is primarily driven by worry that they may just be in the dark.
Contrary to some assumptions, most people don’t intentionally barrage themselves with negative news and thought patterns. Several reasons that people are likely to doomscroll include:
- Fear of missing out (FOMO)
- Fear of the unknown
- Low self-control
- Negativity bias
Doomscrolling Is an Extremely Bad Habit
Regardless of the reason, doomscrolling is a terrible habit to fall into. As it turns out, doomscrolling can take a pretty harsh toll on a user’s mental health. It can reinforce negative biases as well as cause feelings of helplessness. Excessive doomscrolling also heightens feelings of anxiety, which in turn may encourage a person to continue scrolling through endless pages of negative news to relieve their increased worry.
Barraging oneself with a constant spiral of negativity can also keep social media users awake at night, scrolling well into the next day. Sleeplessness alone can have detrimental effects on mental health, and experts agree that excessive doomscrolling can cause insomnia. Many people are aware that a lack of sleep can take a physical toll on the body, but not getting enough rest at night can also contribute to worsening feelings of depression.
In addition to sleepless nights, this compulsive media consumption can “increase levels of cortisol and adrenaline.” A person with high levels of these stress hormones may be more susceptible to diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. What’s worse, in addition to these physical and mental ramifications, is that doomscrolling can also perpetuate itself by way of negative reinforcement. Once you start, you can’t stop.
Doomscrolling Brings Negative Bias
Consuming news is certainly not a bad thing. News across all forms of media has kept people informed about essential societal developments throughout history. However, the way that we consume this news is important. Naturally, people are drawn to bad news, especially during times of crisis. Some studies have shown that over-consuming negative news following a crisis or disaster can actually manifest symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Unfortunately, media outlets are aware of this, and will therefore continue to cover horrible stories because news websites that make the commitment to publish more positive pieces often lose a large percentage of their readers.
Are There Positive Effects of Doomscrolling?
Many social media users might feel like doomscrolling keeps them informed of what is happening in the world. They may even find safety or comfort in obsessively researching negative topics online. Some people may highly curate the news they consume, and therefore, find the practice of doomscrolling reassuring. These instances are attributed to keeping a “carefully curated bubble” of content. However, given the overwhelming evidence that doomscrolling exacerbates poor mental health, it simply is not a sustainable habit. Most people are aware of the negative impact doomscrolling has on their overall well-being, yet they can’t look away. Even though some social media users feel like this practice is central to staying informed, there are many more who yearn to stop for their own sake.
How to Break the Cycle
The most obvious advice is to, “put down your phone and stop.” But anyone who has been caught up in a cycle of doomscrolling knows that going cold turkey and completely quitting the Internet info flood is easier said than done. Experts usually recommend intentionally reading more positive news, setting aside controlled time for social media, exercising away from your phone or computer and downloading apps to track social media use. After all, two minutes on social media can often lead to two hours without awareness and moderation. Becoming more aware of the habit is the first step toward breaking it.
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