In the first scary months of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us turned to social media for updates and information. What we found there seemed to confirm our worst fears. For many of us, there was something oddly satisfying in that confirmation, terrifying as it was. Every gloomy forecast just made us want to scroll further.
We were doomscrolling. Doomscrolling is defined as the obsessive urge to go on scrolling through news feeds and social media, looking for the darkest posts. It increased our anxiety and was bad for our mental health, but we couldn’t stop.
Doomscrolling wasn’t new in 2020. We’ve been doing it for years. Political upheaval, environmental catastrophes, war, economic downturns, you name it—we’ve been scrolling for it ever since we all got online. It makes us feel terrible, but we go on doing it. Why?
The answer lies in the intersection of neuroscience and the social media business model.
The Business and Science of Doomscrolling
Social media algorithms are designed to keep us engaged. This is why they prioritize the most sensational content—we can’t look away, even as the ads roll by between posts. As we scroll, every alarming post sends a little shock to our system, triggering the release of dopamine in the reward center of our brains.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that alerts our brain when something threatening appears. And it rewards the brain for paying attention by giving our central nervous system a little jolt of pleasure. Social media algorithms hack this process by making sure our eyes land on the content that will deliver the biggest dopamine hits and keep us scrolling for more.
Doomscrolling and Psychology
Social media feeds capitalize on other aspects of human psychology, too. These include:
- FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
In a world where calamity seems to strike at a moment’s notice, many of us turn to social media for up-to-the-minute information. What if everyone else knows something’s happened, and we don’t? Doomscrolling makes us believe we’re in the loop.
- Negativity Bias
Evolution has wired our brains to register negative news more than positive or neutral news. This is why reading about a single car accident or robbery can have you thinking your city is unsafe, despite crime rates being low overall. This negativity bias makes us focus on the most appalling news.
Doomscrolling can be an anxiety response, a way to alleviate concerns by staying informed and feeling in control. But it often has the opposite effect, increasing anxiety and stress rather than alleviating them.
Three Ways to Limit Doomscrolling
The dopamine hits we get from doomscrolling make it hard to stop, especially when it makes us feel in-the-know and on top of things.
Negativity bias makes sure we never get the full picture, however, and the stress and anxiety of bad news last longer than the dopamine boosts.
Walking away from the urge to doomscroll is good for your mental health.
Here are some ways to do it:
1. Program your mind towards positivity
Balance out the negativity by seeking out positive stories or looking through websites such as The Good News Network or Positive News. This will get easier as your algorithm learns to show you more positive and uplifting content.
2. Set a time limit for social media and consciously craft your feed
Social media can help us stay in touch with friends and make new connections, and it can be a useful source of information.
Too much scrolling, however, increases our exposure to doom and gloom. Try to limit your social exposure to 30 minutes a day. Being disciplined about when you look at social media will likely have a huge positive impact on your mental health in and of itself.
Consciously craft your social media feed by asking yourself:
How does this makes me feel? Does this person has a narrow-minded focus on this?
Consider removing or muting from your feed those that have an overly negatively-oriented slant. Consider including those bringing in positive, well-rounded perspective or refreshing perspective.
You may also want to learn about the concept of a low-information diet and how it can improve mental health.
3. Replace social media time with a more fulfilling activity
Instead of scrolling, spend time with soothing or creative tasks like creating art, cooking, playing board games, or journaling. You can even opt for vigorous physical activity like a walk, run, bike ride, or a dance class, which will lower anxiety and help produce endorphins.