What Is Doomscrolling? Experts Explain Why We Do it—And How to Stop
When you're surrounded by bad news, it’s tempting to go one of two ways: Avoid all mentions of it or obsessively read about every little detail—and so many people are doing the latter lately, that there's even a word for it now: "doomscrolling."
Not convinced? Check Twitter; the website is filled with comments about users and their tendencies to doomscroll, and pleas to stop the habit. And even Merriam-Webster has designated the term—along with "doomsurfing"—as one of the terms they're "watching."
It's understandable, of course; bad news isn't necessarily in short supply these days, and with Americans staying home more due to COVID-19, screen time has noticeably jumped (it's up as much as 50% among children ages 6-12, according to reporting from Axios).
But there's good news about your bad news habit: There are things you can do to lessen your doomscrolling and reclaim some of your precious time. Here's what you need to know, and how to break the habit.
What is doomscrolling, exactly?
Doomscrolling or doomsurfing, are new words used to describe the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing, Merriam-Webster says.
While doomscrolling existed—in practice, if not in name—before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Merriam-Webster points out that it’s really taken hold lately. It’s not just about the virus, though: People can doomscroll through news about racial injustice, Naya Rivera’s untimely death, and the unemployment rate. Basically, if the news is bad or depressing, you can doomscroll it.
OK, but why do we doomscroll—and how bad is it, really?
Turns out, your brain loves this stuff. “We are all hardwired to see the negative and be drawn to the negative because it can harm us physically,” Ken Yeager, PhD, a psychiatrist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Health. He cites evolution as the reason for why humans seek out the negatives—if your ancestors learned all about how [insert scary ancient creature here] could injure them, they could avoid that fate. “We can sense danger,” Yeager says. “It helps us survive.”
But in modern times, most people don’t realize they’re even doing this, 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, tells Health. “People have a question, they want an answer, and assume getting it will make them feel better,” she says. “You keep scrolling and scrolling. Many think that will be helpful, but they end up feeling worse afterward.”
To that point, doomscrolling can really challenge the way you see the world, Yeager says. “People are drawn to doomscrolling because they feel like they have a sense of being able to control any of that bad news,” he says. “But doomscrolling does not create control and only makes you miserable.” The overall impact doomscrolling has on people can vary, but typically, it can make you feel extra anxious, depressed, and isolated, Yeager says.
How can you stop doomscrolling, for real?
First, it’s important to recognize that you’re doing it at all, Dr. Gallagher says. That habit you’ve formed of cruising through COVID-19 news online as soon as you get up? Doomscrolling. Your desire to stay up to date on every piece of info about how schools across the country are struggling to reopen? Also doomscrolling.
From there, take a beat and think about how you feel after you do this. Does it make you feel better and more empowered to have this knowledge, or do you end up feeling even more anxious and hopeless? If it’s the latter, Dr. Gallagher says you’ll want to get out of the habit ASAP.
Yeager recommends trying to limit the amount of time you spend on your devices. So, maybe you put aside 15 minutes for you to cruise social media but, when the time is up, you put your phone down and don’t do it again for the rest of the day. And, if even that makes you feel stressed, don’t do it.
Then, train yourself to see the positive in things. “It’s not going to come about naturally—you have to work on it,” Yeager says. He recommends looking for at least three positive things a day, even if it’s as minor as thinking that your coffee was particularly tasty this morning. “Over time, these positive thoughts become more meaningful,” Yeager says.
You can step things up from there by trying to do more nice things for people. Maybe you tell your dad you like his new quarantine cut or you let a clearly frazzled mom cut in front of you at the grocery store. “These type of things work against the negative sensations,” Yeager says.
Ultimately, you can't avoid how intense things are right now, but doomscrolling on the regular isn’t doing your physical or mental health any favors—and it's definitely not helping your loved ones or society at large, either. “This is the time for everyone to be really mindful of what we’re doing, and to try to do better,” Yeager says—and if that includes putting your phone away once in a while, so be it.
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