The mental health effects of 'doomscrolling' and how to resist it

Cropped shot of a young businessman working in a modern office at night
Many continuously scroll through the latest unsettling news bulletins. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the latest death toll bulletins can make for bleak reading.

Scrolling social media to uncover the ongoing threat of a second national lockdown, continued economic fallouts and curfew-imposed socialising, is enough to make anyone anxious, but it can be hard to tear yourself away.

While keeping up-to-date on the latest restrictions is critical to stemming the UK’s second wave, continuously scrolling through social media and other sites could seriously affect our mental health.

Incessantly searching the internet for the most recent news, knowing it’s upsetting you, has become known colloquially as “doomscrolling”.

Read more: Anxiety-related Google searches break records amid pandemic

Unemployed businesswoman depressed sitting on a path due to company bankrupted while coronavirus spreading situation
The coronavirus pandemic has been linked to a rise in mental health conditions. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

“Doomscrolling refers to the tendency to consistently scroll through bad news on the internet, even though the content may be depressing, unsettling or demoralising,” psychologist Dr Aria told Yahoo UK.

“Recent events with the COVID-19 crisis, lockdown restrictions, rising unemployment rates, racial injustice, police brutality, worldwide environmental catastrophes and US election coverage have created a constant stream of negative news in the media and social media.”

Social media sites and many other platforms continuously refresh, leaving no cut off point to a user’s incessant scrolling.

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“Doomscrolling by definition is obsessive,” Liz Ritchie, a psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Healthcare, told Yahoo UK.

“It not only increases the risk of becoming overwhelmed by news and social media applications, but also increases the risk of being exposed to untruths and catastrophising.”

Watch: What is doomscrolling? Experts explain why we do it and how to stop

Scientific studies suggest our focus is more easily grabbed by negative information than positive news.

“The human brain has evolved with a negativity bias,” said Dr Aria. “Negativity is a magnet for our attention.”

While experts were warning about the risks of excessive social media use long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, the ongoing outbreak may be exacerbating matters.

“This habit of doomscrolling has been made worse by this pandemic, which naturally instils fear and uncertainty, leading to negative emotions, and increased levels of stress and anxiety,” said Ritchie.

“We can become programmed to expect the worst and develop a mindset which is hyper-vigilant for danger, leading to us embarking upon a quest to seek out any information that will help us to be in more control of the problem.”

Read more: Does sleeping next to your phone fuel insomnia?

Ritchie warns any initial sense of security that comes from feeling more informed is fleeting.

“Excessive use of social media can trigger increased feelings of depression, activates emotional reactivity, promotes loneliness or FOMO [the fear of missing out], and – as this modern lexicon suggests – a sense of doom and gloom,” she said.

The unprecedented pandemic means a barrage of “unusual and unpredictable information places a huge demand on our brains to cognitively interpret what is happening”, according to Dr Aria.

“Without clarity and a meaningful narrative, people are struggling to make sense of current affairs and consequently may experience feelings of stress, anxiety, hopelessness and helplessness,” he said.

How to resist doomscrolling

Switching off from our phones takes just the press of a button, however, this may be easier said than done.

Social media executives have been criticised for using the same techniques as gambling firms to create psychological dependencies, with some arguing the effect is as addictive as cocaine.

To help resist doomscrolling, Dr Aria recommends deciding on a set time to spend online before logging on.

“There are apps you can utilise to reduce your screen time, such as Freedom and ZenScreen,” he said.

“[The app] Moment can help you to measure your phone and specific app usage, and offer ways to build healthier habits.”

Ritchie also recommends making the habit of doomscrolling harder to carry out.

“Perhaps pop [“doomscrolling apps”] in a separate folder or log out of them each time,” she said.

While it may sound impossible in this day and age, Ritchie also recommends not having your phone with you all the time.

“Try not to have your phone as an extra appendage,” she said. “Get used to not having it with you.

“Unless absolutely necessary, do not take your phone to bed.”

Watch: Mental health tips for parents