We have all done it–  gotten lost in our social media feed for so long that you lost track of time, stayed up way too late scrolling through postings on either your personal or work social platforms, or gotten sucked down the internet vortex chasing a long lost bit of information.  Social media and the internet can serve as a link with our friends and family, provide unfiltered information or an endless stream of ideas and inspiration for yet another DIY project (thank you Pinterest!).   Although convenient, research shows that digital overstimulation[1] that comes with free and unfiltered just-in-time information has taken a toll for years on our mental and physical health.

Over the last 6 months I have had virtually every client whom I work describe having some significant feelings of anxiousness, sadness or hopelessness about the future.  Of these, probably 85% have been routinely (and some excessively) watching the news on phone, television or internet.  

I advise them to cut down (or eliminate) the amount of news consumption to see if this will also decrease their anxious discomfort.  The outcome? Every client who decreased their intake of news reported greater than 50% decrease in anxiety and notable increase in positivity about the future.  Those who didn’t decrease consumption reported as much or more anxiety, hopelessness and lack of motivation. Hardly a scientific study but the results were remarkable nonetheless.

Recently I heard the practice of continuing to look at bad news actually has a name:  “oomscrolling.” This activity is defied by Merriam-Webster as “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.” 

Has the digital content volume we consume significantly increased over time?  Perhaps. With our being inside considerably more it has become easier to immerse ourselves in endless cycle of bad news.   What makes our social media consumption so different now from times past is the current climate of negativity, hostility, and outright lack of civility that pervades all media platforms.  Socials, news feeds, and even DIY platforms are not immune from the negative rhetoric that can be seen daily. 

Why is there an allure to choose to subject ourselves to mentally and physically detrimental information?

Humans seek for some control and certainty over life.  There is science to support that humans are wired to hear negative information more readily than positive so we can feel in control of our surroundings and we can remain safe and be alert to possible danger.  This time in history is arguably the most chaotic and uncertain most of us have experienced.  In the past we might have seen the occasional negative story but could click to something more positive or lighthearted to change focus and improve mindset.  Although things are different in the world we continue to try this same approach, with a thought that something positive to improve our mood and outlook is “just one click away.” This false sense of control, to try and scroll to find something positive, is futile because of the overabundance of negative information that we are bombarded.

Strategies for change

How can we stay reasonably informed about the state of the world without becoming ‘emotionally hijacked” by negativity we are exposed to by the media? First, recognize that doomscrolling is negative to your health regardless of what you might tell yourself about needing to “stay informed.”   Another author likened doomscrolling to having lactose intolerance and still eating lots of cheese. Although you know eating the cheese is a bad idea you can’t resist. Eating cheese when you are lactose intolerant impacts physical health– the habit of doomscrolling negatively impacts mind health. Second, studies show[2] that humans tend to gravitate toward and be more attentive to negative press. Yet study[3] supported this finding and asserted that we, the consumers of news, have trained journalists to focus on negativity. This would imply that people actually prefer bad news over good despite professing otherwise.

Despite us humans having a tendency to gravitate toward “doom” focused information there are ways we can change our natural tendency and re-train ourselves to engage in other activities:

Control the controllables

Most of the time it is unrealistic to think we will be able to avoid the news and social media completely but there are healthier ways to consume media.   We’re constantly drawn to our phones with every sound, buzz or flash from the notifications light. Deleting social media accounts you do not use is one way to limit noise and mental clutter. This is especially true if you have a habit of switching between platforms in hopes to find uplifting content but only to be fed more bad news. Another way to reduce time spent on social media is to turn off “push” notifications and “mute’ apps that may trigger a desire to check for any ‘updates.’

Make sure your brain is engaged

Doomscrolling is a mindless task and can change thinking in subtle ways.  Social media has a tendency to slant your thinking in a way that leads you to see everything is negative and almost in a zombie trance like state we assume that negativity is the state of everything.

Avoiding falling into this trance-like state requires action. First, recognize that social media is powerful enough to occupy mindshare so all sense of time is lost. Countering this requires setting a timer on your phone, or even an egg timer, that indicates when browsing time should stop. If we are not aware of our consumption time we can easily be sucked into the endless internet information vortex.

Second, make it a goal to be mindful during daily routines.Meditation and physical activity can help and some apps (e.g. Calm or Headspace) can facilitate focusing outside of the negative thinking that doomscrolling can promote. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be some activity alone on top of a mountain alone with your thoughts—you can practice being mindful while doing life ‘stuff’ like laundry, dishes or even taking the dog for a walk.

Check your space and create social distance

It is as critical to think about your social media space as you would your physical environment. Surround yourself with the people and things that you love and care for rather than an endless barrage of negative commentary about the destruction of the world or impending doom if __ is elected.

If staying informed is your desire, then opt for uplifting stories. Bookmark sites and accounts that bring you joy and replace doomscrolling with this content.  Pay attention to sites that you visit and take note of how you feel. If visiting these places takes a negative toll on your mood then mute, block, or unfollow and modify settings so you do not receive the updates that historically take a negative toll on your mindshare.

Sleeping with smart devices next to (or in!) the bed keeps the mind awake and on alert for the next communication or correspondence that occur. Create some social distance from you and your device, particularly before bed. Arianna Huffington, author of Thrive and founder of ThriveGlobal.com, says that when she’s ready for bed, she “escorts all her devices out of her room” and shuts the door. This habit allows for better sleep without site notifications or after-hours texts.

Change your opening and closing routines

Casually consuming bad news (whether it’s on your social feed or a news site) can be especially harmful if you’re doing it first thing in the morning or before bed. What you do in the time right after you wake up sets the tone for the remainder of the day. If you are exposed to negative media your brain is primed for negativity throughout the day. Also make it a point to avoid visual images that might further provoke negativity during the day.

When winding down for the day stop checking news and social media 30 minutes before bed. Reading negativity before sleep is detrimental because your mind gets wrapped up in the “what if’s” and is preoccupied with all the things you are unable to change or control. This then leads to mind racing and a focus on all things negative, a recipe for disturbed fitful sleep. When we don’t sleep well (or enough) we are primed for negative thoughts and feelings the following day. 

Check in and refocus your priorities

Check in with yourself every now and then to see how you are doing.  If you’re generally an upbeat person with a positive outlook and find yourself overly negative and pessimistic then it is a possibility that external factors like doomscrolling may be is squashing your outlook.  Tracking your mood can help bring light to the cause-effect of activity upon mindset; if watching the news leads to a case of doldrums then there may be doomscrolling at work.

We humans have also lost our usual means of social support and connection through pandemic restrictions and our efforts to stay safe.  Social media and the internet can feel like the only way to remain connected to the world—through the latest statistics and hearing about threats we should be consumed with.  Instead of immersing yourself in the news and other social media outlets that perpetuate doom use the phone to connect virtually with friends and family. Refocusing our priorities on actual relationships and sharing in daily routines, eating meals or watching the same shows together and talking afterward can be more powerful than virtual connections.  

The world isn’t as bad as news and social media would make it out to be but we can all agree that it is far from perfect. Staying internally ‘in tune’ allows us to make active choices in the media we consume and how these choices impact our moods. Paying attention to topics in the news and social media that may be harder than others to hear (pandemic or not) can give insight as to content that might be best limited or avoided.  Although the world might gravitate to the land of negativity fueled by doomscrolling– your place in the world doesn’t have to!

[1] Lin, L. Y., Sidani, J. E., Shensa, A., Radovic, A., Miller, E., Colditz, J. B., … & Primack, B. A. (2016). Association between social media use and depression among US young adults. Depression and anxiety33(4), 323-331.

[2] https://www.pnas.org/

[3] Trussler M, Soroka S. Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames. The International Journal of Press/Politics. 2014;19(3):360-379. doi:10.1177/1940161214524832