Looking back over the past six months, you may see that you have been consuming much more news online. A free moment? Open up your news app and start scrolling. You may say you’ve turned into a news junkie and are proud to be able to recite COVID-19 new cases by state and the number of arrests in the most recent protests across the country, but what you’re really doing is doomscrolling.
Merriam-Webster recently added doomscrolling and the related term doomsurfing to its words to watch. The online dictionary says, “Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. Many people are finding themselves reading continuously bad news about COVID-19 without the ability to stop or step back.” And of course doomscrolling can apply to any bad news, virus-related, political controversies, unemployment rates, pay cuts and more. Essentially, if the news is bad, and you’re seeking it out, you are doomscrolling.
A steady diet of bad news is not good for your mental health, which in turn can wreak havoc with your physical well being. It’s a tough habit to break because we’re hardwired to pay attention to any potentially dangerous situation that may threaten our survival. “Since threats are more important to our survival than other information, we pay more attention to the negative things than the positive,” Pamela B. Rutlegge, Ph.D., wrote in an article in Psychology Today.
It’s a vicious cycle. Uncertainty about our environment triggers anxiety and stress, which causes uncertainty, which then drives us to seek more information to feel in control. “Psychologically, we are not only anxious about the environment, but we become preoccupied with the sense that we are missing something that is vitally important to our survival,” she said. “So we keep looking.”
If we’re searching on Google, Apple News or other online news aggregators, our searches inform the site’s algorithm and that bad news we’ve looked for appears at the top of our searches and feeds and increases in volume. Pretty soon, it appears that all news is bad news.
You can break the cycle. The first step is to realize you’re doomscrolling. Understand that the news you see online is a product of what you’ve looked at over time. To reset the algorithm, make a conscious effort to avoid the depressing topics that you’ve been interested in.
In Apple News, for instance, you can choose topics by tapping on the Following link at the bottom of the page, which will open to a list of your top topics and channels, along with a list suggested by Siri. Tap on the three dots next to each topic to choose Stop Suggesting. Next, scroll down to the bottom of the lists and tap Discover Channels & Topics. Here, you’ll see an array of publications and sites, so choose ones you like that are not news-related. You can also type subjects in the search box to find sources of interest that won’t suck you back into the doomscrolling habit — as I write this, I added bird watching, a family hobby my children and I resurrected now that we’re spending weekends up at the cabin in Oakley.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting you ignore all bad news, just limit your intake of information and go to a handful of sites that are reputable and unbiased. For instance, if you are looking for COVID-19 updates, you can check the CDC and The New York Times’ Map and Case Count by State. Bookmark your sites to avoid searches and decide how frequently you will check them, which should not exceed once a day.
If you find yourself spending too much time connected to the internet doomscrolling or just escaping the woes of the world, try these strategies. Set a time limit on using your phone, computer or other devices. When you feel the urge to open a new tab on your computer or open an app on your phone to “just check” the news, don’t do it. Instead, choose an easy activity to replace device use like taking a walk or reading a chapter in a good book. You’ll feel better, which will reinforce the replacement behavior. If you gather as a family, make the most popular doomscrolling topics off limits. This will force the conversation into more positive territory and everyone will leave feeling better.