The act of doomscrolling—spinning continuously through bad news despite its disheartening and depressing effects—and social media envy, like the fear of missing out, present greater risks to your health than were previously realized.
A tranche of research over the past few years, amid the global coronavirus pandemic, a rise in armed conflicts, and increased economic woes, has offered a glimpse into what leaves us restless at night and the ways social media and our phones exacerbate feelings of helplessness. Spawning from a sense of inadequacy about one’s appearance or a perceived lack of achievements, anyone scrolling their phones for extended periods and misusing social media faces an elevated risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and suicide.
But when at least one in five Americans get their news through social media, it seems a near impossibility to disassociate from our digital avatars and the mobile computers we cart with us everywhere. Like most everything in life, moderation is key.
“Doomscrolling is essentially an avoidance technique used to cope with anxiety, so wherever you are vulnerable to anxiety, doomscrolling can become an unhealthy coping mechanism,” says Megan E. Johnson, a licensed clinical psychologist and researcher specializing in trauma and brain-behavior relationships. “And ironically, the very things doomscrolling can rob you of—healthy sleep, meaningful social interactions, fulfilling work, and hobbies—are also the things we know are most supportive of our mental well-being. So it becomes a vicious cycle.”
Your Feelings are Important
Getting in touch with the thoughts and feelings driving compulsions toward hate-scrolling, doomscrolling, or what I’ll call “envy-scrolling” across social media and news platforms is the first step.
Recognizing the root of your interest in bad news or an over-investment in the opinions of others may be the result of feeling vulnerable or helpless or overwhelmed. Decide what to call it, then seek out the first, simplest option to feeding that need, whether it be through support of a friend or colleague, security from your partner or four-legged companion, or comfort and rest in the form of a mental health day.
“Let’s say you are feeling stressed out at work and you disengage from your tasks to pick up your phone and doomscroll. Once you catch that compulsive behavior, check in with yourself and ask what it is you are thinking and feeling,” Johnson says. “Once you understand your need, then you can find a realistic and appropriate way to get that need met, rather than compulsively turning to doomscrolling” or social media.
If you feel overwhelmed by a looming workload, ask for help. Turning to your phone might only serve to distance you from the colleagues and friends and family who could help.
“All it will do is temporarily distract you from your uncomfortable emotion,” Johnson says. “But those unpleasant feelings are there for a reason, and they communicate to us our needs, so we cannot just silence them with distractions. Once you become aware that what you actually need is support, then maybe you can reach out to a colleague and delegate some tasks.”
Stay Informed, Not Consumed
Liveblogs and curated feeds of friends and social contacts don’t make this part any easier.
Staying informed is a healthy part of social engagement. Overstimulating yourself with news and the goings-on of those around you, however, can lead toward dangerous habits like self-effacement and social comparison bias. Johnson notes that when we’re worried or overwhelmed, the human default setting is to gather sources of information to feel in control.
“We believe that if we have all the facts, we can make better decisions and protect ourselves from danger,” Johnson says. “This illusion of control and safety is a fallacy, though. There is a never-ending supply of information to consume, so we never feel like we have all the information—because we don’t, and we can’t.”
Engaging with a limited, close group of friends (remember Dunbar’s number) can keep stimulation down, just like choosing a few trusted news outlets to vary the sourcing and information of your media consumption (while remembering to of course pick reputable outlets). Remembering that more information isn’t always good information, and that more information can also lead to a feeling of less assuredness. In seeking information about Covid-19, or the war in Ukraine, one might find there’s too much to understand, and that’s OK.
“Rather than attempting to gather all the information, it is healthier to recognize that this is impossible, and instead embrace a new idea of what enough information means,” Johnson says.
Setting Boundaries for Safety
Time limits and physical boundaries to news consumption and social media use can effectively balance your digital intake and personal recuperation. Creating distance from anxiety-causing stressors is about forming habits.
After a week or two of enacting limits, such as reading the news only at breakfast or checking your social media profiles only at the end of a workday, can serve to lessen the burden created by the ever expanding content flow we face on a daily basis.
“No matter how much time you allocate to reading, watching, or scrolling through news, there will always be more content to consume,” Johnson says. “Practice accepting the fact that it is neither possible nor healthy to read all the information or know all the facts, and embrace your limits.”
Leaving all screens outside of your bedroom, creating a physical boundary and space in which technology and social media are not welcome, can prevent doomscrolling at night, when an increase in this use of the phone rises as daily distractions lessen amid wandering minds.
Avoid Confirmation Bias
A 2018 study conducted by researchers at the University of Sussex, in England, found that food quality and preference had much to do with appearance and labeling. In the study, a smoked-salmon-flavored ice cream was widely disliked. The ice cream label created expectations of something sweet and fruity, with a creamy consistency. When those were not met, the salmon didn’t just taste bad, it just didn’t live up to what we might think is ice cream. But when the same dessert was presented to another group and labeled “frozen savory mousse,” the taste testers found the formula agreeable.
“Research has shown that humans have a sort of mental filter that causes us to discredit information that challenges what we already believe to be true, and we give more weight to ideas we agree with,” Johnson says. “When you are doomscrolling, you will find there is no shortage of terrible information out there that will only enhance your confirmation bias.”
This highlights many of the brain’s rationalization habits. It points to our inherent need to use confirmation bias, a sort of defense mechanism against daily woes. One way to avoid confirmation bias—meaning your expectations are rooted in believing your worldview is definitive, also known as solipsism—is by arguing against your own beliefs.
Feeling Anxious and Numb Is Normal
Bethany Teachman, a professor of psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Virginia, says the feelings arising from social media overuse or doomscrolling are normal. They also cultivate existing feelings which may have gone unaddressed.
“We know that people who are anxious hold beliefs that the world is a dangerous, unpredictable place and believe they are vulnerable, so it makes sense that those beliefs would lead people to feel they need to constantly remain vigilant and monitor for signs of danger,” Teachman says. “If you find that your anxiety and sadness are staying at high levels for weeks or months, seek a professional evaluation.”
Teachman suggested the Association for Behavioral Cognitive Therapies and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to find a therapist. She also suggested a mental health support guide and the university’s research team, which offers free online programs to help reduce anxious thinking.
Whatever method you choose, there are plenty of resources both online and off to help, but remember to embrace what works best for you and cast aside what does not.
“Monitor how well the strategy is working for you and don’t be afraid to try a few different approaches,” Teachman says. “Some trial and error is normal as people figure out which set of strategies will help them.”
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