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The Gloomy Science of Doomscrolling

My last drop of serotonin dried up months ago, but my thumbs cannot be stopped

No amount of Hawthorne Heights or black eyeliner could have prepared me for my dependence on bad news in 2020. I check the coronavirus death toll every morning, skim through somber health-care stories every afternoon and identify the latest Trump debacle every evening. It would be safe to say that my sadness has peaked, but my thumbs refuse to stop scrolling.

I know many others are having a similar experience in 2020, endlessly thumbing through the constant onslaught of devastating news. This obsessive behavior has come to be known as doomscrolling, a term popularized by finance reporter Karen Ho over the last couple years, and there are good reasons why we feel so inclined to keep up with tragic happenings. 

Why Do We Doomscroll?

“The tendency to doomscroll is a result of how the human brain is wired,” says media psychologist Pamela Rutledge. “Our brains instinctively pay attention to any potentially dangerous situation as part of the biological imperative of survival. Our brains are designed to constantly scan the horizon for potential threats. Since threats are more important to our survival than other information, we pay more attention to the negative things than the positive. When there are no answers or are conflicting answers, more information doesn’t increase our sense of safety, so we scroll in pursuit of better answers, and so on.”

For instance, Mike Brooks, co-author of Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World, describes how our propensity for bad news over good news may have helped us in the past. “Fifty thousand years ago, when we were on a savannah, if we missed the bad news that there was a pride of lions stalking a watering hole, we could have been eaten,” he explains. “But if we missed the good news that a tree nearby was bearing fruit, we most likely would have lived to see another day.”

Combine that ingrained affinity for bad news with the tactics social media companies use to keep us hooked, and doomscrolling is almost inevitable. “The problem is that tech companies have set up a system where you feel that you can’t stop: Infinite scrolling, autoplay and other tricks keep you glued to the screen,” says Larry Rosen, co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. “If you find a doom-and-gloom article online, and you want to continue in that vein, it’s hard to stop because there’s always more, and you don’t want to miss out.”

Unfortunately, our deep-seated preference for bad news has become an example of evolutionary mismatch: While it was helpful when bad news was limited to our small lives on the savannah, the bad news we read about now comes from every corner of the world and often has almost no impact on our individual lives besides making us feel bad.

How Does Doomscrolling Impact Us?

Not in very good ways. “Too much negative information biases our perceptions,” says Rutledge. “A steady diet of doom and gloom makes the world seem more dangerous and uncertain than it already is.”

This can then manifest in any number of very real mental problems. “In terms of mental health, doomscrolling can impact us in a variety of ways, each of which has a biochemical underpinning,” Rosen says. “The most common in this situation is depression, although anxiety is a close second.”

Worse yet, as we continue to scroll, we continue to exacerbate all of these feelings. “Doomscrolling is, I think, contributing to the doom,” Brooks explains. “The more we doomscroll, the more worried we get, the more we want to look for things about negative news, and we keep checking, and it makes us worse.”

How to Stop Doomscrolling

Simply being aware of our penchant for bad news and the mechanisms behind doomscrolling can help us see the world more clearly. “If we look over the past several hundred years, the world is a much better place than it used to be,” Brooks says.
Medieval Europe was brutal. Even our pandemic pales in comparison to plagues of history.” 

Remember, there is good news out there — you just need to pay attention to it.

But if you want to be more proactive about curbing your doomscrolling, Rutledge says, “Actively schedule breaks to step away. Balance negative information with other types of content that you enjoy to create an emotional buffer. Be aware of when more information isn’t adding anything new. In spite of the desire to keep looking, if you’ve already learned all there is to know at that moment, step away. If it makes you too anxious to quit looking, pick a time when you might reasonably expect new information.”

Speaking of time, spending less time online in general can help, too. “To combat these chemicals being released and infiltrating your body and brain, I’d suggest setting a timer as to how much time you allow yourself to keep scrolling,” Rosen says. “Set your phone’s timer or use options from screen time to do the same. I’d recommend no more than one hour a day doomscrolling.” If you want to be extra stringent, Brooks adds that getting your news from print newspapers can obviously stop you from doomscrolling altogether.

And if worse comes to worse, you could always try balancing out your doomscrolling with Hentai memes. It’s worth a shot, right?