- An increasing number of people are “doomscrolling” as they seek information on the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Experts say the obsessive searching for information can have numerous mental health effects, including an increase of stress.
- They add that staying informed and making connections while scrolling can be a benefit.
- Experts recommend that people limit their doomscrolling by setting timers or using apps that limit daily access to news feeds and social media sites.
“I am a doomscroller,” admits Katie, a 26-year-old speech therapist living in Columbus, Ohio.
She checks social media — Twitter and Facebook primarily, and later Google for news — around 10 times daily.
It’s a habit that has “increased significantly” since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Doomscrolling is “the act of endlessly scrolling down one’s news apps, Twitter, and social media and reading bad news,” explained Ariane Ling, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York.
“The pandemic has exacerbated these habits in many ways, including the fact that there is no shortage of doomsday news,” she said.
“Additionally, in the efforts to make information accessible to all, many major news resources like the [New York Times] are offering coverage of COVID for free,” Ling told Healthline. “This creates both less barriers to being informed, but it also adds to the abundance of doomsday headlines out there. “
If the actions of doomscrolling sound familiar, you’re not alone.
For Katie, her doomscrolling is linked to a need for reassurance.
“I’m very scared about the idea of going back [to school] before there’s a vaccine or reliable treatment,” she told Healthline. “I check in the hope that I’ll get good news and feel better about the prospect of being forced to go back. I do it with the intention of lessening my anxiety, but I think it makes me more anxious.”
“This is an evolutionary habit, as we like to familiarize ourselves with dangers in order to gain a sense of preparedness and control,” Dr. Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada, told Healthline.
“Unfortunately, doomscrolling has worsened during the pandemic because people are hypervigilant for danger and are more likely to seek information in hopes of finding a way to control the problem,” she explained.
Physical and psychological effects
Previous research has already shown a link between excessive social media use and increased feelings of depression and loneliness.
Fixating on a deluge of news and social media during a pandemic that requires increased self-isolation likely only raises the risk of negative mental health effects.
“Many people think that they’ll feel safer by staying abreast of the latest news. Yet, they don’t realize that consumption of the negative news only leads to greater fear, anxiety, and stress,” Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend,” told Healthline.
“For some, doomscrolling becomes a ‘unsatisfying addiction’ that promises safety, security, or certainty when, in fact, the ever-changing, melodramatic news provides the opposite,” she said.
“Prior to COVID, I wasn’t really doomscrolling much at all,” Chris, 34, a writer in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, told Healthline. “Everything since then threw me down a bit of a hole with scrolling the feed, especially when I was in between moves and stuck at home. Fear and worry is definitely a factor in how often I stay glued to the screen. The pandemic increased it at least, I don’t know, 300 percent. Probably more.”
All that information can cause a constant, low-level panic that’s hard to peel yourself away from.
“Many individuals experience cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing, and doomscrolling could lead to an increase in ruminative thinking and panic attacks,” Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry, a psychiatric care network based in California, told Healthline.
“A vicious feedback loop draws people back to news and scrolling yet again. This transient assurance gained by reading the news worsens anxiety over time,” she said.
This dynamic can also disrupt your sleep and make your attentiveness and overall performance suffer the following day, experts say.
“Given that mental health is connected to physical health, it’s no surprise that negative habits such as doomscrolling negatively affect the physical body, from interfering with sleep to creating a craving for comfort food and overeating,” Manly said.
“In the long term, doomscrolling can increase levels of cortisol and adrenaline, both of which are stress hormones. Research routinely shows that chronic levels of elevated stress hormones are associated with many physical health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity,” she said.
And people are already experiencing higher than normal levels of stress and depression during this pandemic: As many as 49 percent of adults self-report depression symptoms, up from a historic norm of 37 percent, research shows.
“Chronic stress can increase your heart rate and make you more prone to ulcers. It’s not good on multiple levels. And for those of us who already deal with higher levels of anxiety, doomscrolling can exacerbate the fault lines already in place,” Dr. George Brandt, a psychiatrist with the Centura Health system in Colorado and Kansas, told Healthline.
“A little stress can be a great motivator,” he said. “Being appropriately informed, as an example, helps rationalize thoughts and paint a clear picture of reality. A lot of stress, however, can often create chaos.”
Not all gloom and doom
But not everyone sees doomscrolling amid a pandemic and social unrest as all downside.
For Brett, a 49-year-old retail manager living in southeast Louisiana, doomscrolling on Twitter is a welcome distraction.
“Doomscrolling is an escape from the drudgery of work,” he told Healthline. “I’d rather worry about bigger problems on [a] national or global scale than think about how I might lose my job based on poor sales metrics or a complaint that I didn’t smile.”
“In my case, it helps,” he said.
Some people, like Chris, also find motivation amid the gloom and doom.
“In some ways I’m glad I scrolled a bunch because I met people and organizations through social media, and these folks have changed how I look at the world,” Chris said.
“I feel they’ve helped me become a better person who is more healthily engaged. And fortunately, I’ve met most of them face-to-face, so at least the scrolling, in some way, helped me just go say ‘hello’ in person,” he said.
Staying informed without the doom
So, what can you do to scroll without so much doom?
Start by cutting back and creating boundaries for your social media use.
“Instead of trying to stop doomscrolling, limit it,” Celan said. “Set yourself a timer every time you decide you’re about to start scrolling for updates, stopping at 5 to 15 minutes. That way you can feel informed while letting go before you begin to feel overwhelmed.”
Celan also suggests using apps that can limit your usage, such as locking you out of your news feed or Twitter account after a set limit per day.
“Listen to your body and emotions. When you slow down to listen, your body and mind will tell you when you’ve absorbed enough (or the wrong type) of news,” Manly said.
“If you’re feeling agitated, anxious, or stressed, you know your body is signaling you to stop what you’re doing. Just as if you’re eating bad food and your body and mind say, ‘No! Put down your fork and push the plate away,’ you can get used to doing the same thing with doomscrolling,” she said.