It's important to follow the news and be informed about what's happening in the country and the world, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic and an election that will determine the futures of millions of Americans. But psychologists say there is such a thing as consuming too much news — and the anxiety-inducing habit even has a name now: "doomscrolling."
What Is Doomscrolling?
"Doomscrolling refers to the rabbit holes we often find ourselves in on the internet, reading, searching, and 'investigating' the toils and troubles of the day," Jason S. Moser, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Michigan State University, told POPSUGAR. Dr. Moser noted that the most common doomscrolling topics are currently COVID-19, social injustice, and politics. He explained that doomscrolling isn't exactly a new concept because people generally focus on bad news — but thanks to our smart devices, we can consume headlines and discussions on social media about these issues every second of the day.
As is the case with anything we do in excess, Dr. Moser said that we generally reach a point where we're not learning anything new and the time spent doomscrolling can begin to creep into other aspects of our lives. For example, Erika McElroy, PhD, a licenced psychologist at Aurora Mental Health Centre in Aurora, CO, told POPSUGAR that if the amount of time you spend scrolling interferes with completing work tasks, caring for family, and socialising with friends, it's a red flag that you need to change the behaviour.
"Doomscrolling is an interesting phenomenon because it's a 'reassurance seeking' behaviour," Dr. Moser explained. "That is, we're presumably looking for things to put our minds at ease — definitive information that helps us end the uncertainty or keep us in 'the know' or maybe even something good to offset the bad." Unfortunately, there's often not a definitive answer, so we can find ourselves in a cycle of looking for solutions and not finding anything, which causes or exacerbates anxiety.
Dr. Moser noted that sometimes we do find a bit of relief, which only reinforces the behaviour. "That is, the momentary relief we find in some of these answers makes us more likely to scroll again," he said. "The problem is, scrolling only has short-term benefits. Most likely it will result in longer-term anxiety and uncertainty because we never find the answer or relief that lasts that long."
How to Stop Doomscrolling
Dr. McElroy told POPSUGAR that doomscrolling is a bad habit like overeating or not sleeping enough — and bad habits can be changed through awareness and making conscious choices. To break the habit, she recommends following these steps.
- First, figure out exactly how much time you spend doomscrolling. "[You] can start a simple tracking system that includes how often [you] read news and how much time [you] spend reading each time," said Dr. McElroy, noting that most people aren't aware of just how much time they spend scrolling each day. This simple task can be eye-opening. For a quick estimate, look at the screen time report on your phone.
- Next, set a limit for how much time you want to spend scrolling through the news or social media each day. Dr. McElroy said that this will vary depending on your habits. For example, some people read news a few times a day for short periods of time, while others scroll once a day for longer periods. "The important thing to consider is how you feel after reading and if you find yourself replaying what you read in your mind," Dr. McElroy explained. "If you feel anxious and upset, that's a cue that you probably need to reduce the amount of time reading news or possibly read the news less frequently."
- Don't doomscroll before bed, as that's a time when your mind and body should be focussed on getting rest. Dr. McElroy explained that doomscrolling "sends a continuous message to the brain that situations in life are unsafe," which can put your brain in "fight or flight" mode and cause physical symptoms of anxiety. Needless to say, putting your body into fight or flight mode right before bed can cause sleep disruptions.
- Balance the negative with a positive. "It can be helpful to plan a pleasant activity like a walk or talking with a friend after spending time reading negative news," Dr. McElroy said. "This can help balance the negative information with a positive experience."
- Take breaks from your phone and laptop. We've become accustomed to being connected to our devices at all times, but Dr. McElroy explained that "the simple task of removing them from our environment can help remind a person to stop and think before engageing in doomscrolling behaviour."
- After you've taken steps to change your doomscrolling habits, do a weekly check-in with yourself. Assess how well you're sticking to your new routine. For example, Dr. McElroy recommends asking yourself simple questions such as, "Am I spending more or less time scrolling than I would prefer?" and "How do I feel after making these changes?"