Doomscrolling, a term that has become increasingly popular in recent years, refers to the act of compulsively scrolling through negative news on social media or other digital platforms, even when it induces stress, anxiety, or feelings of hopelessness.
As the world grapples with unprecedented challenges, many find themselves trapped in a cycle of doomscrolling, unable to tear themselves away from the barrage of disheartening headlines. Understanding the psychology behind this phenomenon and its impact on mental well-being is crucial, as is learning strategies to break the habit and cultivate healthier digital behaviours.
The psychology behind doomscrolling
At its core, doomscrolling is driven by a combination of our brain’s evolutionary wiring and the design of digital platforms. Humans have an innate negativity bias, which means we are naturally more attuned to potential threats than to positive information. This predisposition has evolutionary roots, as early humans needed to be alert to dangers to survive.
Digital platforms, especially social media, capitalise on this bias. Their algorithms are designed to keep users engaged for as long as possible, often by showing content that elicits strong emotional reactions, including negative ones. Consequently, we find ourselves drawn to distressing news, even if it’s detrimental to our mental health.
Research found that negative news spreads faster and more widely on platforms like Twitter compared to positive or neutral news. This amplifies the prevalence of distressing content, making it difficult for users to avoid it even if they wanted to.
Effects of doomscrolling on mental well-being
Doomscrolling doesn’t just waste our time; it can have profound effects on our mental well-being. Consistent exposure to negative news can elevate stress levels, induce feelings of hopelessness, and amplify anxiety. As we are continuously bombarded with distressing information, our brains can struggle to process it all, leading to emotional exhaustion and burnout.
Our constant engagement with distressing content can skew our perception of reality, making the world appear more threatening and less hopeful than it might actually be. This can lead to a state of chronic vigilance and heightened anxiety.
Research indicates that excessive exposure to distressing digital content, much like trauma, can result in symptoms similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This further underscores the importance of regulating our digital consumption habits.
Breaking the doomscrolling cycle
Recognising the detrimental effects of doomscrolling is the first step towards cultivating healthier digital habits. The next step is to take proactive measures to break the cycle.
One effective strategy is to set boundaries for digital consumption. This might mean designating specific times of the day for checking news or social media and sticking to these windows. Setting time limits on apps or using digital well-being tools available on most smartphones can also help regulate usage.
Balancing negative content with positive or neutral information is crucial. For every distressing article or post, make an effort to consume uplifting content. This can help counteract the negativity bias and provide a more balanced perspective on world events.
Embracing positive digital habits
Aside from limiting exposure to distressing content, embracing positive digital habits can bolster mental well-being. This includes engaging in online communities that foster support, positivity, and constructive discussions. Participating in digital detoxes, where one takes a break from electronic devices for a set period, can also be rejuvenating.
It’s also worth noting that while digital platforms can be sources of stress, they also offer countless resources for mental health support, from online therapy sessions to mindfulness apps. Leveraging these resources can be instrumental in promoting psychological resilience in the digital age.
The digital landscape, with its endless stream of information, presents both challenges and opportunities for mental health. While the lure of doomscrolling is undeniable, with awareness and proactive strategies, we can navigate the digital world in ways that support, rather than hinder, our well-being.
Curating our digital feeds, unfollowing or muting distressing accounts, and allocating specific times for checking updates can be effective ways to maintain mental equilibrium. Taking regular digital detoxes, where we unplug entirely from our devices, can offer much-needed respite, allowing us to reconnect with ourselves and our surroundings.
Liz Harte is a digital well-being researcher with over a decade of experience studying the intersection of technology and mental health.