We're all increasingly aware of the many ways that overexposure to social media and the 24/7 news cycle can affect reality and the way we engage with it. Over the last few months, though, one aspect of online life has been making headlines – 'doomscrolling', a neologism for compulsively immersing yourself in the bad news which abounds on news apps, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
People have been talking about the concept online since at least 2018, but with the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic, growing numbers of people began turning to social media for information about the spread of the disease and the threat it posed – with studies showing that since the pandemic began, daily use of both Facebook and Twitter, for example, has risen by around 25% - and doomscrolling went viral.
So given that it can feel like pure masochism and only makes us more miserable and anxious, why do we do it?
In times of uncertainty and worry, it's normal to look to the news in the hope of finding answers - human evolution has given us a need to familiarize ourselves with dangers so that we feel reassured we're prepared to tackle them. And it's that need for reassurance that drives the urge to doomscroll. In a situation like the current pandemic, many of us are constantly seeking information in the hope of finding a way to feel in control of the situation. But though we might be checking in the hope of finding news which offers us certainties, we're instead deluged with negative news which increases our feelings of anxiety and helplessness, in turn making us crave more reassurance and creating a kind of addiction.
Unsurprisingly, as well as spoiling your mood, doomscrolling can also take a physical and psychological toll. Studies have long shown the links between excessive social media use - being “too online” - and increased feelings of depression and loneliness. At its most basic, the flood of negativity produced by doomscrolling can cause an increase in heart rate, breathing and blood pressure and constant low-level panic, with short term effects ranging from problems sleeping to overeating. In the long term, it may increase stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, chronic levels of which are associated with heart disease, diabetes, ulcers and obesity. The risks for mental health can include panic attacks, cognitive distortions, an increase in ruminative thinking and depression, creating the feedback loop that keeps doomscrollers scrolling.
So how do we stop ourselves? Experts say that one productive step is to schedule and cut down on the amount of time you spend using social media – use a timer or one of the apps which allow you to lock yourself out of your news feed or social media accounts after a set amount of time per day, limiting your usage. That way you give yourself the chance to feel informed without allowing the bad news to overwhelm you. But it's even more important to listen carefully to your body and your emotions – agitation, anxiety and stress are signals telling you that it's time to stop: as soon as you start feeling them, log off and do something in the real world that you know will give you pleasure.