My name is Stephanie, and I am a doomscroller. The first step is admitting you have a problem, right? Well, I have a problem. Here’s the problem: I can’t stop trawling Twitter, Apple News and the other information sources I have on my phone to confirm to my anxious self that the world is indeed a chaotic hellscape, because that’s how it seems to me.
But while more information is supposed to make me feel better prepared come what may (knowledge is power, right?), all it does is make me feel less in control. Judging by all the other people losing it in the threads I read, I have lots of company.
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What is doomscrolling?
Research in the journal Perspectives in Psychiatric Care in 2022 defined doomscrolling as “a habitual, immersive scanning for timely negative information on social media newsfeeds.” Another paper published in Technology, Mind and Behavior last year broke it down as “a unique media habit where social media users persistently attend to negative information in their newsfeeds about crises, disasters, and tragedies.” Sounds about right to me.
The term doomscrolling came into wide use in 2020 during the COVID anxiety-fueled spike in digital media consumption. Many of us were trapped at home washing our groceries and hearing about people getting sick or dying and equipment shortages, and we had our lives upended overnight. Hungry for any info that might keep our families safe, a lot of us developed the habit of clutching our phones or tablets, refreshing our feeds until our fingers cramped.
Now, of course, we doomscroll on other topics, such as the possibility of school shootings or rollbacks of constitutional rights. Regardless of which particular unknown we are trying to get a handle on, doomscrolling may “lead to the experience of emotions of intense anxiety, uncertainty, apprehension, fear and feelings of distress which in turn lead to difficulties in the initiation of sleep, poor quality of sleep, decrease in appetite, decreased interest in activities and low motivation to continue with tasks of the day,” according to the article in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care.
It just so happens that I have an example, literally at my fingertips! Yesterday morning I saw an article someone posted on Twitter about some random person in Ohio whose poop reveals what may be a “cryptic” strain of COVID into the wastewater there. “Cryptic” didn’t sound good to me. I am a health journalist, so one could argue (as I did to myself) that I had to read up on it for work purposes.
The next thing I knew, I was down a rabbit hole on the current state of the virus in this country and how the numbers being reported aren’t reliable and stories about how it seems the government has given up on mitigation measures, which harms the most vulnerable among us and will lead to an epidemic of long COVID that we will be dealing with in human and healthcare costs for decades to come. Much of what I read is accurate, because unlike some doomscrollers, I am careful about my sources of information. Still, a lot of it was opinion and analysis, as opposed to information with an empirical basis.
What’s more, I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know — and I wound up feeling anxious, even though right now where I live the virus appears to be relatively scarce. The way I fell into this particular doomscrolling ditch is pretty typical, says Bethany A. Teachman, a professor of psychology and the director of clinical training at the Program for Anxiety, Cognition and Treatment (PACT) lab at the University of Virginia.
“That fear of missing out, that feeling of I better be vigilant, or I might miss information, I won’t be prepared so I need to know, that’s what fuels the urge,” she says. “And of course, rarely do people actually get that feeling of being on top of things. It’s a vicious cycle, and you’re not getting novel information.” It fuels the possibly exaggerated idea that things are really as bad as you think if not worse.
Still, the way the info comes at your eyeballs as you flick your thumb across the screen, it’s easy to believe that one more click on one more story or thread will give you the security you seek.
Doomscrolling seems to be caused by a mix of social, cultural, technological and psychological factors in the individual who can’t seem to put her phone down, according to researchers.
Let’s start with who is most prone to it: “We have some initial evidence that people who are prone to anxiety are more likely to doomscroll, as well as other people who have mental health issues that make them want to have that sense of certainty,” says Teachman. While there is no one demographic that “owns” doomscrolling, she says, there are certainly people who are more likely to do it. They include those who use social media and who are driven by FOMO (fear of missing out). “Younger adults, men, those who are politically engaged, all of those have a higher likelihood of doomscrolling,” Teachman says.
I check several of those boxes, but Teachman points out that a person who doomscrolls may not be doomed to do it forever. “The habit may fluctuate at any given time in a person’s life,” she says. “During a period in which there is a heightened sense of uncertainty, like transition periods or the start of the pandemic, that is such a recipe for anxiety. People experience, What is happening? The world is not what I thought it was,” she explains. To attain some sense of control, some of us get sucked into these desperate searches online. I personally do it less when things feel a bit more stable.
Which brings us to our media environment, especially social media. We have a barrage of 24-hour news channels, which then live in one way or another on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and all the other platforms. There, algorithms feed us more of what we indicate interest in, and engagement on a given topic is rewarded with greater visibility for that topic.
So guess what? Us anxious, news-oriented types looking for some sense that the world is something we can wrap our arms around, wind up seeing more and more scary stuff, which Teachman says gives us a distorted view of what’s going on. “If you see a large number of negative stories, you’re constantly getting the message that the world is a dangerous place, which makes you want to doomscroll more,” she says. “But there are plenty of indications that it’s a safer time to live than it used to be.”
Certainly we have longer life expectancies than we used to, COVID notwithstanding. Up until 2020, the United States saw a steady rise in longevity. Data shows violent and property crime in the US declining since the 1990s. There are lots of other examples.
But that all depends what you’re focused on, and there are metrics that tell a different story. The FBI reported that hate crimes are at their highest level in 12 years as of 2020, and extreme right terrorism is hardly trending in the right direction. There also are plenty of examples that the world is, in fact, falling apart.
And that’s exactly Teachman’s point: Whether you feel like the world is falling apart depends what you focus on, and doomscrolling is literally focusing on the examples that reinforce the idea that we are, well, doomed.
Impact on mental health
Well, let’s just say that doomscrolling doesn’t make you want to go skipping through a field of daisies pondering the beauty of the universe. Since doomscrolling is a relatively new phenom, there isn’t much direct research yet, but social media use in general has been shown to be linked to depression and addictive use of technology is tied to increased symptoms of various psychiatric disorders. There’s also evidence that folks who doomscrolled through COVID news during the height of the pandemic even for a few minutes took a mood hit (people who read about acts of kindness during COVID did not). “It adds to anxiety, which for some people can have downstream effects,” says Tishman.
The best evidence of how doomscrolling affects your mental health can be gleaned by paying attention to how you feel after you do it, says Teachman. “Notice if your mood is being affected, if you’re not enjoying the rest of your time when you’re not online,” she suggests. “What impact is the way you’re consuming social media having on the rest of your activity? Are you not going for a walk, not sleeping well, not spending time with friends and family? Be a mini-scientist and monitor what impact it has on you.”
It’s possible that your media consumption, even if alarming at times, is fine for you. “If you spend time online and come away feeling connected and informed, that’s great. But if you feel like everything is falling apart and lie awake with your mind spilling, no. One should be informed and be an engaged citizen, but too much negative information can make you paralyzed.”
How to stop doomscrolling
It’s all about balance, says Tishman. “The solution is different for different people,” she says. Try these ideas:
Give yourself 20 minutes in the morning and 30 in the evening, not too close to bedtime, to catch up on the news of the day, and then put your phone down, she advises.
I think I’ll try that. I’m lucky — things in my actual life are going pretty well, even if the world seems like lunacy. I am going to limit my doomscrolling and see if that makes me feel a lot more certain in my own little universe.
Stephanie (she/her) is the deputy director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she writes, edits and otherwise creates health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and other Hearst titles. She has covered women’s physical and emotional health, nutrition, sexuality and the multitudes of topics they contain for national publications for decades, and she is also a bestselling author, a mom of twins, a dog mom and an intuitive eater in progress.
Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor emerita of psychology at University of Massachusetts Amherst and faculty fellow in gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston