Have you ever picked up your phone to aimlessly browse social media, only to find yourself sucked into a vortex of terrifying information that captures your attention but destroys your nerves? There’s a word for that: “doomscrolling.”
The precise neologism describes the act of compulsively consuming an endless procession of bad news online. And while antecedents of the term have bounced around Twitter for a couple of years, it’s hardly surprising that it has really taken off in 2020. After all, to use another relevant-to-our-times Internet adage: *gestures broadly at everything*. While it’s true that there is always bad news, and that we can logically rationalize that, in the grand scheme of history, right now has its relative charms – life isn’t as short, sick and poor as it was in the Dark Ages – the year has still been, well, a doozy. There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there.
A breakout buzzword of 2020 – Merriam-Webster named it “one of the words we’re watching,” while Dictionary.com included the term on its list of “new words we created because of coronavirus” – doomscrolling has entered the lexicon largely thanks to Karen Ho, a journalist (and former Globe and Mail reporter) who has tweeted out variations of “Stop doomscrolling” almost every evening since early April.
Initially, Ho says, these tweets were her “talking out loud” to herself on Twitter – little notes reminding her to resist bingeing online information about everything from police brutality to “layoffs and how workplaces are changing, to really serious discussions regarding what work from home will be like long term, and the ongoing response in the States and other countries like Canada to the pandemic before a vaccine is found,” especially right before bed. Her followers quickly let her know they appreciated these reminders, too. “People were telling me that it was helping them think much more actively about their own passive scrolling, and log off,” Ho says.
Social media’s inherent addictiveness is well documented. The kinds of pull-to-refresh and infinite scroll features used by the likes of Twitter and Facebook are notorious for affecting the human brain in much the same ways as casino games and cocaine. The 24-hour news cycle also keeps us tethered to our screens: Important information could break at any time, so we feel like we have to keep checking lest something significant slip past us. Between anxiously staying abreast of the news and desperately seeking some kind of entertaining diversion from it, we’re glued to our technology. In spring, news sites saw their readership surge, while Twitter reported a record high of 186 million daily active users between April and June – a 34-per-cent year-over-year rise.
According to New York-based clinical psychologist Dr. Ali Mattu, the underlying reason we keep doomscrolling is that “uncertainty fuels anxiety.”
“As you read bad news online your mind wants to get more certainty – when there’s a danger, your mind wants to do something to alleviate that danger or learn more information,” he says. And if clear answers to your questions and comforting solutions to your fears just don’t exist, “all you find is more uncertainty, which keeps you trapped in the cycle of checking, looking, feeling worse.”
Yet, the solution to all this anxious scrolling is not putting our screens away completely. Rather, it is developing a strategy for how, why and when we engage. It is about cutting down on those zombie-ish, passive times we expose ourselves to news and social media – such as grabbing our phone before bed only to look up and realize it’s 2 a.m. and we’ve been scrolling for hours. When we wade into an endless torrent of information on autopilot, we’re prone to getting carried away.
“It’s about having intention,” Mattu says. “Is my intention here that I want to read all the major stories from this news outlet I trust, or is it I want to make sure I’m plugged into the big things happening across a few sources? Whatever your plan is, go for it and be intentional.” Further, Mattu recommends setting time limits on internet use, relaxing in ways that don’t involve social media and finding people to talk to about any anxiety the news stirs up. “All of us have to develop a coping strategy for dealing with the news in 2020. It’s as important as brushing your teeth.”
One of the best things we can do to reduce the impact of doomscrolling on our well-being may be divesting ourselves of the belief that we have moral imperative to engage with hard news as much as possible. That’s not because the news is unimportant – but rather because our energy and attention are finite. It is crucial to stay informed. Yet, if we are not efficient and purposeful with how we are consuming information – that is, if we passively doomscroll – we risk burning out and feeling useless, hopeless and paralyzed by an onslaught of problems we seemingly cannot affect.
To engage with difficult issues productively, we must engage with them sustainably. In the case of the pandemic, engagement could look like organizing aid for those affected in our communities. When it comes to anti-racism work, it could be donating to activist organizations and speaking out about injustice and inequality where and when we see it. Regardless of what we do, “someone wouldn’t be incentivized to keep doing that work long term if they were doomscrolling” and feeling demoralized and exhausted, Ho says.
For her part, Ho has deleted the Twitter app from her phone, so she has to access the site on her phone’s web browser, which she describes as a “really terrible” experience.
“I always want to remind people that there are lots of things that are still within people’s control,” she says. “That’s the whole point of the doomscrolling reminders, is that it could feel really chaotic and overwhelming right now. But there are still things that we can do to help ourselves, and to help other people.”