What Is Doomscrolling? What Psychologists Need You to Know
If reading bad news gives you a rush, you may be doomscrolling. Psychologists explain why people do it and how bad it can be.
I first discovered the r/Collapse Reddit community—an online board to “discuss the potential collapse of global civilization”—after interviewing a prominent climate change scientist for an article. During the course of our interview, he confessed that all the projections they were putting out there were “overly rosy.”
He and his fellow researchers felt compelled to water things down for the public, he said, out of fear we would all just give up—instead of take action—if they told us the truth.
I was not a fan of this scientific whitewashing. After our discussion, I started looking for more information about the range of projections on climate change, not just the palatable ones researchers felt like they “should” say. This was how I ended up at r/Collapse and found my people, which is to say a group of slightly paranoid, give-it-to-me-straight realists who also aren’t getting much sleep.
It actually made me feel better. It’s not a collective of extremist doomsday preppers (although there are some of those). Rather, it is made up mostly of people like me, those who “seek to deepen our understanding of collapse while providing mutual support, not to document every detail of our demise.”
I loved it so much I didn’t want to admit it might be turning into a problem. What I was doing has a name: doomscrolling.
(Related: Do You Have Morning Anxiety?)
What is doomscrolling?
This is the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news may be perceived as saddening, disheartening, or depressing. In addition to Reddit, my Twitter feed is an ode to the bleak. (Somehow, perhaps as a coping technique, I’ve managed to mostly keep my Facebook and Instagram shiny, happy places.)
I’m not alone in this habit. For me, it started years ago with that interview, but for many people, the craziness of 2020 is what got them caught up in doomscrolling. (It’s also when the term made its way into our common lexicon, due to journalist Karen Ho‘s near consistent reminders on Twitter to stop doomscrolling and go to sleep.)
It makes sense, says Ken Yeager, a researcher and associate professor of medicine who leads The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stress, Trauma, and Resilience Program.
“This year has been a year of unprecedented changes,” he says. “The pandemic, electoral issues, the economy, protests, and public expression of raw emotions, natural disasters like hurricanes have all contributed to the phenomena known as doomscrolling.
“Doomscrolling is the modern-day equivalent to watching a train wreck,” he adds. “It’s really very difficult to look away.”
It should also be noted that this isn’t just an accidental phenomenon or a personality quirk. It’s also a business decision. From politicians to tech companies to cell carriers, all kinds of people profit from us being overly engaged with technology.
The more often they can get us to click, the more money they make, says Jeff Gardere, a psychologist, associate professor, and course director of Behavioral Medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. It’s in their best interest to do whatever it takes to keep us reading, even if it’s not in our best interest.
“The phone is our connection with the outside world. We are inundated with bad or negative news and it happens every few minutes,” he says. “The sense of urgency, excitement, and danger can become very addictive.”
Why do we doomscroll?
Doomscrolling serves a real purpose in people’s lives, some helpful and some harmful.
People have different reasons for doing it and it’s important to understand what’s motivating your news habit, says Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director of Community Psychiatry, in Newport Beach, California.
To try to make uncertain events make sense
It’s easy to feel helpless and scared during these uncertain times and some people find that staying informed, even through doomscrolling, helps them feel comforted and in control.
Understanding why and how something is happening can help it to feel less frightening. “It’s a way to understand or try to make sense of very uncertain times,” Yeager says.
A sense of connectedness
Another benefit is feeling connected to others who have similar concerns and worries or are in similar situations, Dr. Magavi says. You feel like you’re part of a group and you’re not alone.
Reassurance that you’re okay
The third potentially useful reason, and perhaps the most surprising one, is that it can be a way to reassure yourself that things actually aren’t as terrible as they seem and that you’re doing alright, Yeager says.
For instance, seeing news about a devastating typhoon on the other side of the world may make you grateful you live in a land-locked state.
“For some people, it can be empowering that they are on top of the latest disaster before other people,” Gardere says. “It’s almost like being ahead of the game.” This can also be helpful for knowing what you should be doing now to prepare.
For instance, perhaps you need to pack a “go bag” in case of fire, while others may want to stock up on toilet paper in the face of new quarantines.
Fear of missing out
Of course, there are also negative reasons people doomscroll. Top of that list: a deep-seated fear that you are missing out, Dr. Magavi says.
You’ve heard of FOMO (fear of missing out) for parties and weddings? Well, it turns out that you can get FOMO for natural disasters and wars, too.
Constantly reading bad news can be a way to reassure yourself that you’re not missing anything important, she says.
A way to manage anxiety
Many people who doomscroll use it as a way to manage their anxiety about events they can’t control, Dr. Magavi says. Unfortunately, this habit can quickly become a compulsion.
You start out doomscrolling to relieve your anxiety and then the bad news only creates more of it.
Boredom stemming from being trapped indoors during quarantine is another reason many of us start doomscrolling, Gardere says. Our phones are the one thing that’s with us no matter where we are.
We’ve become more dependent on them for everything from information to entertainment to connection, he says. Some people scratch that itch with Candy Crush. Others read through alarming news reports.
Doomscrolling may be a manifestation of a deeper issue—hypervigilance, Yeager says. People who are in a state of hypervigilance have a heightened sensitivity to potential dangers and are constantly scanning their environment for threats.
It exists as a way to help people monitor and escape dangers. But the problem is that when everything feels dangerous, then you’re on constant alert, which is mentally and physically exhausting.
You’re addicted to your phone
Every time you pick up your phone, you’re rewarded with a little hit of dopamine, leading many people to pick up their phone 75 to 100 or even more times per day, Yeager says.
What’s one major way your phone can capture your attention? A big, negative news headline. And before you know it, you’re doomscrolling through all the headlines. “Picking up your phone is consistently rewarding and it can be very hard to break away from news feeds,” he says.
It feels like doing something
While each of these reasons resonates with me on some level, for me personally, I think I like doomscrolling because it feels like I’m doing something.
It gives me the illusion of action without the responsibility or fear of stepping outside my academic comfort zone and, you know, actually doing something about all these problems.
Health consequences of doomscrolling
Doomscrolling can have a wide range of effects on mental, physical, emotional, and social health, particularly when it becomes excessive, Gardere says. Here are some of the health consequences actively seeking bad news can have on you.
An inaccurate worldview
Many people who start doomscrolling experience cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing. Doomscrolling can worsen these, causing even more ruminative thinking and more doomscrolling, Yeager says.
Eventually, it becomes a vicious feedback loop where your entire worldview becomes even more warped and distorted. This is especially true on the Internet where there is an endless supply of news and opinions that will reinforce your personal biases.
Increased risk of mental illness
Doomscrolling can adversely affect your mood, to the point where you may become depressed, anxious, or begin having panic attacks, Yeager says. It can also lead to a sense of futility or helplessness, which—in the worst case scenario—could lead to suicidal thoughts or completion.
Thanks to the blue light, any excessive screen time contributes to poor sleep, but add anxiety-provoking news and you’ve got the perfect recipe for insomnia, Dr. Magavi says.
Doomscrolling is a particularly addicting type of phone use and can have serious consequences outside of the content itself. “You may find yourself participating less in conversations and interactions with those around you as you become screen-focused rather than people-focused,” Yeager says.
Poor work performance
The more time you spend doomscrolling, the more your attention, performance, and functionality will suffer in other areas of your life, like work, Yeager says.
“Doomscrolling is often accompanied by stress eating or binge eating,” Yeager says. “Some individuals scroll and eat concurrently, and subsequently, experience shame and guilt. They often then resort to binge scrolling and eating even more to alleviate these negative feelings.”
In addition, if you’re doomscrolling you’re probably not doing it on a treadmill. Sitting for long periods of time has been linked with many health problems. “Doomscrolling could lead to weight gain, and over time, increase the risk of cardiac and endocrinological disorders,” adds Yeager.
Neck, back, and eye strain
“Many people assume poor posture while scrolling, and this could cause muscle pain and discomfort,” Yeager says. “Additionally, doomscrolling could lead to dry eye syndrome and ocular fatigue.”
Doing things you regret
Because doomscrolling relies on cycling news headlines, oftentimes the news you’re reading isn’t complete or accurate. In some cases, it may be an outright lie or manipulation, Gardere says. “Much of the information can have inaccuracies and hyperbole, may be politically influenced or even tampered with by foreign agents,” he says.
Believing dangerous conspiracies or false beliefs can lead to serious consequences both on a personal and societal level, he says. People have done some upsetting, crazy, illegal, and life-threatening things based purely on misinformation they came across while doomscrolling.
How to know when you’ve crossed the line
Whether or not your doomscrolling has become a problem can be hard to see in yourself. “At first, the consequences are minimal and they may worsen slowly across time,” Yeager says. “Many will feel their actions are normal as they see others around them doing exactly the same thing. It is not until they break the habit that they realize just how much of their life it’s taking up.”
What qualifies as a “problem” is going to be very individual, but there are some red flags to look for, Dr. Magavi says. They include:
Checking the headlines and social media feeds more than a few times per day. Some doomscrollers feel compelled to check every 15 minutes.
Seeing the same information over and over again and becoming frustrated with the lack of new information
Checking social media so often that it disturbs your sleep, including waking up at night to make sure you don’t miss anything
The stats on your phone use show that you’re on it constantly and/or are picking it up dozens of times per day.
Turning down activities you love in order to spend more time doomscrolling
Checking your phone in inappropriate or dangerous situations, like while you’re driving
Being unable to function normally in your daily life, including going to work, taking care of your health, grocery shopping, and spending time with loved ones
An overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and futility
Concerns expressed by loved ones
How to quit (or at least moderate) your doomscrolling
Once you’ve recognized that doomscrolling is impacting your life in negative ways, you can start taking action. Here’s how to get started:
Set up your digital health apps
The best way to moderate or stop this behavior? Use the same technology that is enabling your doomscrolling to lock you out of phone access, says Yeager. Most phones come with “digital health” apps or functions that allow you to set time limits for phone usage or for individual apps.
It can even be set to lock you out of your phone if you pass the limit or during certain times of the day, like during sleeping hours. Your phone can also prompt you to do other things, like take more steps or drink water instead of scrolling through Twitter.
Give yourself a hard limit
Cutting it off cold turkey can be too difficult for some people so a good compromise is to set a time limit for yourself each day, Gardere says. For example, limit your doomscrolling to no more than one hour total and use a timer to keep yourself honest.
And don’t forget to include screen time on devices other than your phone; it still counts as doomscrolling if you’re watching it on TV or your laptop.
Make a list of alternate activities
A lot of doomscrolling happens during periods of boredom so short-circuit this impulse by having a list of more productive things you can do with small chunks of time, Yeager says. “Try taking a short walk, sit outside in the sun, have a healthy snack, meditate, take a stretch break, or visit with a friend.”
Charge your phone in a separate room
It’s hard to constantly check your phone if you have to get up to do it, Dr. Magavi says. Keep your phone in a separate room, particularly at night, to reduce the temptation to mindlessly check it.
Check in with a therapist
For some people, the pull to doomscroll may be too hard to overcome on their own. A mental health professional can be key both in overcoming the addiction and in dealing with the depression and anxiety, Yeager says.
You may be wondering if I was able to see myself in any of this. The answer is yes. Staying on top of the news is literally a part of my job so I don’t have the option of quitting entirely.
But talking to these experts made me realize there are certain areas where my doomscrolling has become a real problem.
The two biggest issues for me are in my relationships with others (my family and friends are beyond tired of hearing me talk about doom and gloom news) and my sleep.
To help combat these issues—and to become a healthier person overall—I’ve decided to stop sleeping with my phone in my room and to allot time each day to read a fun or interesting book so the news isn’t the only thing in my head. I’m also committing to stop bringing up the news with my loved ones. I’ll save that stuff for my friends at r/Collapse.