Have you ever found yourself incessantly scrolling through social media and news feeds with the desired intent to consume depressing and negative information? Without awareness, you may be doom scrolling, a term that emerged in early 2020 to describe how life in an increasingly digital age interacts with anxiety-inducing events. It impacted that year and was coined as the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year. The topic of social media consumption has taken center stage, and its overall impact and understanding on our mental health are now emerging. We hear stories of people, or maybe within ourselves, staying up into the late hours of the night consuming content, obsessing over the glowing screen of devices, and searching for answers to what we are experiencing collectively. Many studies have identified a threshold between moderate and severe episodes of media consumption at 2.5 hours at a time.
Doom scrolling can manifest in different ways with different personality types. It can represent a response to gain control by accessing knowledge to make sense of a time or event that is already stressful or anxiety-inducing. It can also take shape as an avoidant attempt to isolate oneself from stressful or anxiety-inducing events by filling time and headspace with information that may feel more desirable. Both ways can allow one to participate in social media addictive behaviors, including compulsive scrolling. Still, the latter can also feed into additional stressors typically caused by social media, like a fear of missing out and dangerous comparisons of unattainable lifestyles.
Although the behavior behind the trendy new moniker is not new, as the public has often experienced a “can’t look away from a car crash mentality” throughout history, in the past, this phenomenon began as the 11 o’clock news where, although terrifying at times, people were able to consume stressful and intense media from the safety of their own home. Some describe doom scrolling as a “Modern Equivalent” of this phenomenon, except there is no time limit for consuming this media.
How did it begin?
Two prominent factors coincided around the same time to create the doom-scrolling effect; the collective experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and the increase of individuals getting their news from social media sites.
During a collective traumatic event like the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was an increased desire to gather information on what was happening in our environment. The Media Psychology Research Center describes this as “the compulsive need to try and get answers when we’re afraid.” It coupled with increased social isolation, as many were in quarantine and working from home, there was more time to be on social media and consume news or content, compounding the effect of a perceived need for information, leading to news-induced emotions. There was an increase in connection with our electronic devices during the early stages of the pandemic, as our lives moved online; people’s jobs were on Zoom, intrapersonal relationships were on FaceTime, and social engagement moved to the realm of social media, all leading to a dramatic increase in device usage.
Today, 1 in 5 people get their news solely from social media sites, especially among people under 24, who use apps like TikTok for most news coverage. It can exasperate doom scrolling as the UX interface encourages extended engagement or a need to stay informed with new content. The fast-paced interface, paired with an algorithm that serves you what you interact with most, can isolate the user into a pattern of harmful media consumption. It creates a vicious cycle where people are trying to consume every possible news source about the stressful event, in this case – Covid-19, quarantine, and the unknown events of the future. What seems to have happened is that these behavioral patterns that have formed because of the collective trauma of the pandemic are outlasting the contextual environmental factors which created them and spilling over as the coverage of the next crisis looms in the distance.
How can Doom Scrolling affect us?
Many studies can correlate increased screen time use, including frequency and duration of media exposure, to a heightened experience of depression symptoms and general anxiety. Other studies have found that individuals who have reported spending more time-consuming content on social media and news media reveal higher levels of anxiety, distress, stress, and depression than those who did not. The effect of doom scrolling may be an avoidant behavior to cope with an existing generalized anxiety disorder. Still, it can also be a catalyst to create symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder itself. Participating in doom scrolling can lead to a vicious cycle of lowering your exposure to healthy sleep, meaningful social interactions, fulfilling work, and hobbies that support positive mental well-being.
Despite the positive benefits that social media has brought into society, connection and an ability to stay in touch with significant interpersonal relationships, the World Health Organization (WHO) has coined the term “infodemic” to discuss the “overabundance of information – some accurate and some not- that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” Studies have proved the impact of abundant access to both factual and inaccurate news content to result in “Significant psychological strain, or distinct mental conditions resulting from crisis media coverage”
What to do when you find yourself doom-scrolling?
Since doom scrolling can be seen as an avoidant behavior, similar to any unhealthy behavioral habit, breaking the repetitive cycle begins with recognizing that it is happening. Then, acknowledging what thoughts and feelings are behind these compulsions for hate or envy scrolling which can allow you to understand what your unique experience and need for this behavior is providing for you. Are you using screen time to avoid stressful or overwhelming workloads? Is it filling a void left behind by excessive boredom? Are you using social media to distract you from an uncomfortable emotion? The cause or root of the behavior can be unique to each individual.
There are ways to consume news and social media responsibly, as it is important to stay informed about what is happening, but there is a way to do that by not excessively consuming. Recognize your limit for healthy stimulation by social media, as it will only be possible to gather some of the information to solve the problems and stressors at hand. Introducing boundaries for yourself would indicate your threshold for “enough” information. These boundaries could be limiting screen time to a set amount of minutes per day, introducing a specific time to consume media, or introducing a rule to not use devices while in bed.
If you find that doom scrolling results from a generalized anxiety disorder, acknowledge that these feelings of anxiety, stress, and numbness are expected in an era of increased exposure to information. Staying vigilant online to continuously monitor for additional signs of danger and vulnerability can be exhausting. If you recognize that this behavior is continuous for weeks or months, it may be time to contact or discuss this with a therapist.
As so many of these concerns that we find while doom scrolling are out of our control to fix, it can be essential to focus on what we do have control over. Ensure that we care for our bodies, drink water, and eat healthy meals. Practicing mindfulness, including deep breathing techniques and meditation, can introduce positive coping skills to anxious tendencies. Although the algorithms tell us that stressful events are what we are most interested in absorbing, it’s important to focus on the glimmers of hope that we can see and highlight the positives around us.
Bendau, A., Petzold, M.B., Pyrkosch, L. et al. Associations between COVID-19 related media consumption and symptoms of anxiety, depression and COVID-19 related fear in the general population in Germany. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 271, 283–291 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-020-01171-6
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