Doom scrolling — the act of absorbing large amounts of online content, facilitated by the endless scroll ability of many social media platforms — is a distinctly modern phenomenon. It relies on the endless availability of content online, specifically on sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. The reasons people are prone to doom scrolling are nothing new, and as always, some people are more drawn to it than others.
Though it might feel like a harmless time-waster, doom scrolling has real effects on the brain, and stopping is not always easy.
People today want as much information as possible, especially when they feel they are in danger. Taking in these stimuli activates the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response. Although reading news on a screen is not a direct threat, absorbing bad news when doom scrolling causes the fight or flight response to trigger much too easily, leading to compulsive behavior.
Doom scrolling is a common phenomenon. One studyshowed that college students used their smartphones more and experienced increased anxiety when coronavirus news began spreading widely in March 2020. Studies also demonstrated that levels of anxiety and depression increased when participants consumed more news and that unhealthy social media use lead to insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
Research shows that people who are prone to anxiety seek out more information in an attempt to calm that anxiety. When doom scrolling, seeking out more information often leads to exposure to graphic media content that only further increases anxiety, causing the person to seek out more information, increasing their anxiety, and on and on.
Doom scrolling depends on the constant presence and updates of the internet and smartphones, but the cycle of seeking out information to alleviate anxiety leading to more anxiety is nothing new.
In the 1990s, the number of television channels increased, leading cable news to compete with more channels than ever before. In reaction, channels began penning more sensationalized headlines to draw in viewers. One study showed that an increase in negative cable news stories led to an increase in general anxiety. People who watched negative news stories had anxiety that went beyond the topic that the story covered, affecting how they felt about life in general.
Doom scrolling is a by-product of the infinite scroll design used by most news and social media sites. They are created to ensure users never run out of content, auto-loading new posts endlessly as the person scrolls down.
Combine that with the algorithms that choose content relevant to the reader, and you have a perfect storm for doom scrolling. This effect is largely due to automatic human behaviors that make it difficult to stop; we find it easy to lose track of time and continue the behavior.
Although anyone can get addicted to doom scrolling, some people are more at-risk than others. People who have experienced violence or trauma are more likely to develop problems after witnessing or reading about subsequent traumas, continuing a cycle of anxiety.
Research shows that people who have experienced community-based traumas are at higher risk of being negatively affected by media exposure.
Part of mitigating the risk of doom scrolling lies in journalism and the news media. While it is important for journalists to communicate an appropriate level of risk, sensationalized reporting leads to increased societal stress. One way to mitigate this risk is to review or subscribe to public service announcements and other types of community education to avoid relying on sensationalized and biased media coverage.
Doom scrolling has many effects. People are likely to lose time when doom scrolling, which can cause problems with time management and lead to shrugging off responsibilities at work and home.
Spending too much time online takes away from time with friends and family, hobbies, and other positive activities that are necessary to reduce stress. The posture and anxiety from doom scrolling causes physical problems, too, including fatigue, poor appetite, and headaches.
While many people think that the only way to avoid doom scrolling is to stay away from social media altogether, there are ways to use technology to be more mindful in media consumption.
Follow pages and accounts that are largely positive and cover interesting topics so that the algorithm will continue to put upbeat posts in the infinite scroll instead of negative news stories. Some people benefit from changing the screen to black and white so that photos and charts do not look as appealing. Some apps can also help manage the amount of time spent on social media.
The best way to avoid doom scrolling is to significantly change habits by creating physical distance from our smartphones and other tech.
Getting outside, exercising, running errands, and spending time with friends and family are ways to stay mentally healthy and present. Activities like these calm the brain and signal that all is well, lowering anxiety and breaking the doom scrolling cycle.
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