What's Doomscrolling and Why Should You Stop?

30 January, 2021
We absorb it without even realizing it. Social media (and conventional media) is full of sad, negative, and stressful news, and it's all too easy to get caught up in the need to stay "informed". But be careful, as the psychological effects of doomscrolling are significant.

Psychologists all over the world are noticing an alarming trend in technology that has serious mental health consequences. Doomscrolling refers to the recent obsession with reading negative or depressing news. We’re attracted to stories about natural disasters, people who have lost their loved ones to illness, disturbing breaking news, etc.

You might be shaking your head “no,” you aren’t one of those people. You aren’t one of the many with that particular bad habit. You might be right, but it’s also possible you’re in denial. Many people engage in doomscrolling without even realizing it. It’s possible that we do it because, most of the time, there’s more negative news than positive news. In other words, you’re being exposed to information that has an adverse effect on your psyche.

Are we so used to “consuming” this kind of news that we’ve normalized it? Do you feel like you’re used to checking your social media and seeing only bad news? From a psychological standpoint, you might not be surprised by what you see, but your brain definitely hasn’t gotten used to it. Anxiety disorders and depression are on the rise, and bad social media habits such as doomscrolling are most definitely a contributing factor.

An anxious woman on her phone.

What’s doomscrolling?

In a world full of changes and uncertainty, it makes sense that you’re more and more dependent on your smartphone to stay up to date. Doomscrolling is a term that came up on Twitter this past year. It refers to the tendency to mindlessly consume depressing or negative news.

In the last few months, the term has become more common thanks to an article in The Los Angeles TimesIn the article, they included it in a list of words that have cropped up as a result of the coronavirus. At the end of the day, language is a reflection of people’s social realities, which is why it’s so rich, dynamic, and unique.

What exactly is doomscrolling?

Anyone with access to new technology could engage in doomscrolling, though the prevalence of bad news in the media isn’t anything new. We’re used to negative, sad, or alarming news stories, with the occasional baby animal story thrown in for good measure.

  • You’re doomscrolling when you choose to stop and read or listen to a sad story on social media.
  • The emotional impact of the story tends not to last very long.
  • The problems arise when you have continuous exposure, because your negative emotions slowly accumulate.
  • Here’s an example. You’re scrolling through your social media feed and, in the end, you decide to stop and read the latest sad or alarming news story. Your gaze stops on that Twitter thread that talks about someone’s hard life.
  • Without realizing it, your mind is collecting an immense amount of data, images, and stories that affect your psychological well-being.

Why do we do it?

Some in the media are saying that seeking out unpleasant information in the news or on social media is just a fad. That isn’t entirely true. In recent months, these kinds of publications have become highly prevalent. Thus, we’re more exposed to these kinds of stories, and the brain naturally remembers “the bad” better than “the good”.

  • In the world we’re living in right now, a desire to stay informed is perfectly natural. Consequently, we expose ourselves to social media at a higher rate.
  • We have more time.
  • We’re worried about uncertainty and instability, so we want to know what’s going on in the world at all times.
  • That desire makes you more on the lookout for negative emotions. The mind is always alert and overexcited.

What effect does it have on mental health?

Doomscrolling isn’t innocent. On the contrary, it has a serious impact on psychological well-being. It’s really important to keep that in mind. Studies such as this one from the University of Sussex, for example, tell us that not only do negative news stories make you worry more, but they also alter your mood.

The effect is so serious, in fact, that, when combined with some other factors, it can lead to depression or anxiety. The complicated thing is that doomscrolling is a vicious cycle. In other words, you can’t stop reading these kinds of stories even if you know they’re bad for you. You can’t stop because you’ve become addicted to what’s happening.

Another factor is something we touched on earlier, and that’s how your brain holds on to negative memories more than positive ones. If that weren’t enough, the social media algorithms will continue to expose you to this type of content whether you want it or not. The effects on your health can be severe.

A guy looking down at his phone.

How to reduce doomscrolling

The best way to reduce doomscrolling is fairly obvious. Just limit the time you spend on social media. This obvious solution is also one of the most complicated and challenging. After all, the fact that we’re psychologically attached to our phones makes treatment difficult. It’s important to do some reflecting and perhaps reduce the amount of time you spend on social media.

Don’t let social media steal your time and your mental health. Set aside certain moments of the day to check the news. Only answer important messages and try to stop checking your phone as soon as you wake up in the morning.

Last but not least, doomscrolling takes attention away from the positive and gratifying aspects of your life. A chat or a walk are comforting exercises that optimize your mental health. Invest more time in the “real world” and you’ll be able to find balance beyond the screen.

  • Johnston, Wendy & Davey, Graham. (1997). The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953). 88 ( Pt 1). 85-91. 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1997.tb02622.x.