What Is “Doomscrolling”—And How to Stop the Cycle

Up late reading bad news on your phone again? Here's how to stop the unhealthy habit of doomscrolling.

Most of us have done it: It’s midnight, we really should turn off the phone and go to bed, but we can’t stop “doomscrolling” through news apps and social media to read about the coronavirus pandemic. Or civic unrest. Or racial injustice. Or natural disasters. Or all of the above. There’s no doubt 2020 was a doozy of a year—and 2021 isn’t starting out much better—leading to a dramatic increase in the use of Facebook, Twitter, and media sites. Why? “Many who experience these scrolling behaviors find there’s an urgency to look, learn, and understand the sensational issues going on in the world,” says Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

But an obsessive doomscrolling habit is neither helpful for staying informed, nor good for our health. One 2020 Dartmouth study found that college students’ amount of phone usage and Covid-related news exposure was associated with greater reports of anxiety and depression. “There is no question that doomscrolling can be addicting,” says psychologist Sherry Benton, PhD, founder and chief science officer of the tele-therapy company TAO Connect. “The more dramatic the news, the more we tend to get lost in it.” If you have some of the 21 signs you’re way too addicted to your phone, we’re looking at you.

But with bad news always at our fingertips, how can we limit our consumption before it becomes unhealthy? We asked our experts for advice.

What is doomscrolling?

If you’re wondering “what is doomscrolling,” it’s not an official psychological behavior and hasn’t yet made it into the dictionary. But Merriam-Webster has named it one of the “words we’re watching,” explaining that doomscrolling means “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.” The term first appeared several years ago, and gained popularity in the tumultuous year of 2020; it can also be called “doomsurfing.”

It’s not that being informed is bad—check out these 24 positive changes we’ve seen since the anti-racism protests began—but it’s the constant intake of negative information that’s a problem. “Essentially, this is a consciously focused activity of scrolling from one terrifying story, video, or news coverage to another,” says Serani.

Is it new phenomenon?

If you’re doing an Internet search for “what is doomscrolling,” you might not find anything more than a couple of years old. But although greater social media and Internet access has fueled the phenomenon, research has shown exposure to bad news following traumatic events has also been a problem in years past. One University of California study from 2013 found that exposure to four or more hours a day of early 9/11-related television was linked with greater incidence of health problems several years later. Another study found that greater media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 was linked with acute stress. “Doomscrolling doesn’t only take place on your phone or computer,” Serani says. “Remote-scrolling—going from one television station to another during traumatic events—is also a health concern.” Having constant, easy access to bad news has likely just heightened a behavior we’ve already been doing. Plus, social media can have some weird negative effects on your brain.

Can you blame the media?

In part, maybe. “When media companies profit through advertising and rates related to the number of readers, headlines might be written more dramatically to gain views,” Benton says. This also isn’t new, though— writers have used sensationalist headlines to sell newspapers for more than a century. But social media and news apps have another ace up their sleeve for pulling you in and getting you to keep reading. “The algorithm on sites might also recommend you more ‘doom and gloom’ articles the more you read them,” Benton says. Soon, your newsfeed is filled with everything going on that’s bad—and nothing that’s good. Look for the 9 signs you spend too much time on Facebook.

Why do we doomscroll?

Doomscrolling means we develop an almost uncontrollable need to keep reading about bad things. “People who doomscroll are, indeed, quite upset, but instead of sealing themselves off from the trauma, they actually seek more stimulation from the unnerving issue,” Serani says. The clinical term is “counterphobic” behavior, she says: Instead of fleeing from the thing that scares us, we are attracted to it. “They want to know more. They need to know more. They counter the feelings of anxiety by watching and re-watching,” Serani says. “It becomes a kind of compulsion, to repeat the disturbing news over and over.”

Plus, humans don’t like uncertainty, so we keep reading, hoping to figure things out. In doing so, we’re trying to make sense of traumatic events, Serani says.

Does it have a deeper biological origin?

Our tendency to seek out bad things is actually a primitive behavior. “Detecting danger is a central function of our brain and central nervous system. In our cave-dwelling days, this prevented us from threats related to attacks from animals or people, and from being caught in dangerous weather,” Benton says. “The problem is that our nervous system still works the same in our current day and age and doesn’t discriminate between real threats and the bad news we read about. That bad news can send our bodies into high alert.” As a result, people may have a “negativity bias” that draws them to bad news, which could be the reason for the old journalism adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.” You should also be aware of the sneaky signs you’re actually reading fake news.

Do we like to be scared?

Oddly, humans’ penchant for seeking out and identifying danger can chemically give us a natural high, which is also why we sometimes like to be scared. “Humans enjoy the adrenaline rush of fear—it’s why we ride roller coasters and go to haunted houses around Halloween,” Benton says. “We get that same rush when our fear response is triggered reading disturbing material. Thrillers, mysteries, and other adrenalin-triggering books are really popular for a reason.” Seeking out negative news may also be part of this phenomenon because it gets our blood up: There’s a certain thrill in reading about disaster. Find out more on the scientific reason we love getting scared so much.

Why can it be problematic?

So if doomscrolling can actually make us feel good, why is it so bad? “Too much consumption overwhelms our system,” Benton says. “We begin to suffer from stress, anxiety, or depression. Our bodies produce high levels of a natural steroid called cortisol, which can wreak havoc on your body. One might experience things like digestive problems, headaches, sleep problems, memory or concentration impairment, and heart disease. Cortisol and chronic stress can also contribute to weight gain.”

In addition to mental problems, “physical issues like increased blood pressure, cardiac illnesses, chronic pain, sleep disturbances, and lowered immunology are connected to experiencing bad news on a daily basis,” Serani says.

How can it affect your worldview?

Plus, exposure to too much bad news can lead you to have a negative outlook on the world around you, even when you’re offline. “The cumulative exposure to stories of trauma, crisis, fear, and helplessness change our social expectations, making us believe that the world is truly a scary place,” Serani says. “Doomscrolling can make us feel utterly hopeless.” Even though the world has presented us with challenging situations lately, it’s not all bad; but too much time exposed to bad news can warp our perception of reality. “When you read article after article of horrible news, it’s easy and not uncommon to feel like the world is falling apart,” Benton says. And definitely stay away from conspiracy theories you shouldn’t believe.

How much is too much?

The exact amount of bad news to take in may depend on the person. One 2020 German study on the effects of COVID-19 related media exposure found seven times per day and two and a half hours to be the tipping point; but that might even be too much for some people. “If you are spending more than an hour or two to stay caught up on the news, that is a sign you probably need to shift your focus to something else,” Benton says. Beyond a specific time limit, you’ll also want to consider how your news habit is affecting you physically and mentally. “First, take a step back and assess how much time you’re spending on the habit,” Benton says. “Additionally, when you start to have difficulty sleeping, headaches, or digestive problems—that is an important sign to consider changing your media consumption habits.”

How do you stop doing it?

Stopping your bad news habit means setting limits for yourself. “Statistics report that the average media user is online or watching television over six hours a day,” Serani says. “When it comes to the consumption of media, it’s really important to have structure.” Don’t go down the internet rabbit hole, especially right before bed. Instead, “if you feel a need to know what’s going on, give yourself a limit of one hour a day for scrolling current events,” Serani says. “You’ll be informed and have greater well-being with this approach.” Serani also suggests turning off notifications from news apps (or deleting the apps all together) in order to keep the boundaries you’ve set and not get sucked back in. Imagine the things that could happen if social media disappeared.

Spend time in the real world

Social media can help us feel connected—but too much time on it, especially when it’s negative and unhealthy—can affect our real life. “Take time away from your phone or computer by engaging in non-technology and feeding your senses,” Serani says. “Experiences like exercising, talking with loved ones, cooking, cuddling with a pet, listening to soothing music.” It can feel odd to disconnect when we are so used to being online, but it can help us shift our focus. Benton also suggests self-care practices including relaxation and mindfulness techniques: When you’re engaging in mindfulness, you’re living in the moment by giving your full attention to friends and family, or participating in hobbies and activities you enjoy. Try these 23 instant mood boosters you’ll want to make a habit.

Shift the media you consume

Even when you are online, try to balance your intake of the negative with the positive. “The idea of searching for good news is a brilliant way of inoculating yourself against doomscrolling,” Serani says. “Taking in media that contains positive, meaningful, and pro-social events reduces anxiety, sadness, and feelings of hopelessness, be it a human interest story, an uplifting video, or even something silly, like tiny goats dressed in sweaters, jumping and playing—my upbeat find for today!” Doomscrollers might find some guilt in searching out something whimsical instead of the more crucial news of the world, but it’s important for your health to do so. For example, read 23 good news stories that came out of 2020.

Alter your algorithms

Plus, searching out good things might inadvertently help your newsfeed become more balanced. “When I was shopping for a new puppy a couple of years ago, I noticed my newsfeed started to fill with cute puppies; when I was renovating a room in my house, I started to get stories in Architectural Digest and other decorating magazines,” Benton says. “My interests and searches were shifting my algorithms and diversifying the articles suggested. In this same way, we can easily modify our newsfeeds intentionally. Search terms that are interesting to you rather than stressful.” Those might be hobbies, travel stories, animals, or anything that you find pleasant, she says. Lighten things up with comedy shows or humorous books as well: Try reading the 37 funniest books of all time.

Sources:

  • Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York
  • Sherry Benton, PhD, founder and chief science officer of the tele-therapy company TAO Connect.
  • Journal of Medical Internet Research: “Mental Health and Behavior of College Students During the Early Phases of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Longitudinal Smartphone and Ecological Momentary Assessment Study”
  • Merriam-Webster: “On ‘Doomsurfing’ and ‘Doomscrolling'”
  • Sage Jounrals: “Mental- and Physical-Health Effects of Acute Exposure to Media Images of the September 11, 2001, Attacks and the Iraq War”
  • PNAS: “Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings”
  • Springer Link: “Associations between COVID-19 related media consumption and symptoms of anxiety, depression and COVID-19 related fear in the general population in Germany”

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting, and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Parents Magazine online, among others. Here work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.