Despite the UK Government vaccinating “nearly 1.5 million people” over Christmas, ‘doomscrolling’ has seen an unprecedented rise in the public conscience. Between 27th December-2nd January, Google saw more than six times more searches for the term than in the previous week. This follows a year where many have felt overwhelmed by the amount of negative news gracing their newsfeeds.
Between the ever-increasing number of coronavirus variants and the threat of a new wave of cases, what is to be done about this seemingly new phenomena?
What is ‘doomscrolling’?
The term, possibly originating from this 2018 tweet, refers to the habit of getting lost in a sea of negative news stories. It usually begins innocently enough, searching for the latest advice about keeping yourself occupied while staying inside; before you know it however, you’re hopping between articles on death tolls and the fallibility of tests, feeling considerably worse than when you started.
Despite studies identifying the negative effects of repeated exposure to distressing media since the 1970s, (see Dr. George Gerbner’s ‘Mean World Syndrome‘) the ease of access and vast quantity of this content on social media has made doomscrolling even more common.
Dr. Michelle O’Reilly, an Associate Professor of Communication in Mental Health at the University of Leicester, makes the distinction that users who doomscroll tend to “consume large amounts of negative material,” and “skim through bad news”.
“Historically, news took time to identify and process, but the online world means that there is an abundance of available stories at the click of a button. […] it is important that individuals learn e-literacy skills to differentiate different levels of credibility in what they are exposed to.”
This sentiment has been reflected by social media giant Twitter, which has been labelling Covid-19 fake news since May 2020, with other platforms following suit.
Why do we doomscroll?
It seems that doomscrolling is most common when a tragedy leads to people feeling uncertain in their sense of control over their own lives.
In an interview with Health, Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perlman School of Medicine, expressed that “people are drawn to doomscrolling because they feel like they have a sense of being able to control any of that bad news,” before adding: “doomscrolling does not create control and only makes you miserable.”
O’Reilly however emphasised this lack of control as being a cause rather than an effect, as users are “frequently exposed to [negative news]” as a result of our news consumption on social media platforms. “To avoid [negative news] requires an active process of deliberately filtering it out of our lives, whereas historically it required people to actively seek it out,” making it harder than ever to try and take a break from the 24-hour news cycle.
Our current lockdown restrictions are therefore the perfect breeding ground for this habit, as people are stuck in their homes for long periods. Combined with a reported 72% and 82% of UK Millenials and Gen-Zs believing that their smartphone usage has increased as a result of the pandemic, making it no surprise that more people are struggling with this habit than ever before.
Is doomscrolling anything new?
Yes and no.
The term certainly is. As O’Reilly pointed out, “doom-scrolling reflects a new digital narrative that is imbued in social thinking, along with a wide range of other words … like catfishing, sadfishing and cyberbullying”. Could the evolution of language to better fit our current way of life mean that the psychology behind these terms differ?
This isn’t new however. “People exposing themselves to negative, sad, or depressing stories and narratives has been with us for some time”. Rather, social media’s influence has simply made the draw of bad news more accessible than ever before.
How can we stop doomscrolling?
When dealing with any form of stress, the need for a strong support system is crucial. O’Reilly elaborated on this: “For some groups, especially those more vulnerable to the impact of negative news, it can have a cumulative traumatic effect and lead to greater levels of anxiety and lowering mood.
“Some individuals have greater levels of resilience because of protective factors like strong family support, a good sense of community, religious faith, positive attitudes and so forth, but others find it more difficult to manage the negative effects.”
Stress and anxiety can still affect those who are well-supported. For those struggling, here are some tips for reducing the stress and anxiety of doomscrolling:
- Take time to reflect on bad news and the way it makes you feel. Identifying why you feel a certain way about the news is key to processing our emotions properly.
- Avoid untrustworthy news sources. Reading one trustworthy story on the topic will prove more informative and less stressful than juggling several less credible articles.
- Occupy yourself with another activity. This could be anything from your latest lockdown hobby to just calling a friend.
- Seek out good news: there is a lot more outside your feed.
- Control your news intake. Using digital detox apps or turning off push notifications are just a couple ways you can do this.
It can be hard to take a step back from the news cycle, with fears of being left out of the loop contributing to one’s stress itself. However, as with many parts of our lives, the healthiest thing we can do is try to balance our attention, and to revaluate why we follow the behaviour patterns we do.
If you or someone you know are struggling with mental health due to doomscrolling, the pandemic, or any other reason, please take a look at the links below for some sources for support.