Our Brains on Bad Headlines: How “doomscrolling” affects our mental health
I find myself there again before I realize it: compulsively scrolling through bad news, feeling anxious and cynical about the world.
My current newsfeed is one big and scary mosaic made up of climate change, the ongoing global pandemic, and the frightening invasion of Ukraine. It’s hardly an environment that reassures and relaxes. If you spend too long on them — like I do — chances are that you feel tempted to believe that the planet is heading towards some kind of doom.
The habit of getting stuck scrolling through one bad news story after another is fittingly called “doomscrolling,” and has become so relevant to our times that it was named a Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2020.
As more of us are feeling its negative effects, doomscrolling is increasingly emerging as another force for us to reckon with in the challenge to protect our mental health.
My name is Livia and I have an interest in mental health. I have previously written for Inspire the Mind on what cultural heritage can do to support better mental health. Today, I would like to explore the curious phenomenon of doomscrolling and answer the questions that have been on my own doomscrolling mind: What does repeated exposure to bad news do to our brains? How can we dial back our doomscrolling? And is the world really as bad as our news feeds make it out to be?
Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling… towards doom.
Keeping an interest in the goings-on of the world is a good thing — it means that you are curious and care about people and the planet.
Moderate and healthy news consumption, however, turns into doomscrolling when you get stuck scrolling through endless negative content and become absorbed enough to stop feeling grounded and present. Though scary headlines do not put us in physical danger, they are likely to trigger our stress response all the same.
Persistent doomscrolling over longer periods of time may eventually lead to unpleasant feelings similar to those associated with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, including muscle tension, fatigue, and depression. Studies are increasingly suggesting that we need to find ways of dealing with our digital overload — especially as screen time has risen dramatically in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
For example, researchers in Germany found that substantial exposure to alarming Covid-19 media during the beginning of the pandemic likely led to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression whilst the challenge of climate change — reported with particular existential doom — is leading to surges in climate depression and anxiety in youth.
It seems strange that we keep scrolling when it scares us, but from an evolutionary point of view, doomscrolling makes plenty of sense. We have evolved with an unwavering instinct to survive and therefore naturally pay much closer attention to perceived threats than good news, which explains why mainstream journalism would rather deliver punchy and alarming headlines.
For the doomscroller, keeping up with the terrible things happening in the world gives the illusion of preparedness and control — making information gobbling feel weirdly comforting. Doomscrolling does not, however, end up reassuring us but only feeds on itself, causing more anxiety in the long term. It may soothe in the moment but ends up disconnecting us from our inner thoughts and feelings, making it harder to focus on other tasks or go to sleep.
Not all doom and gloom
Scrolling away boundlessly can therefore put our mental health out of balance — but could our attempts to stay perfectly informed also make us misinformed about the world?
The fact that we are seriously starved of good news does not mean that humanity never makes any progress. Yet many — I included — are inclined to think that way.
Swedish physician and public speaker Dr Hans Rosling, one of the world’s most prolific researchers and educators in global health and development, argued that most of us tend to get even basic facts about human progress wrong. Surveys undertaken by Dr Rosling’s organisation Gapminder and compiled in the book Factfulness show that most of us tend to wrongly assume the worst regarding global challenges ranging from poverty to life expectancy. More than 8 in 10 people falsely think that there are many more refugees and hungry mouths to feed, for example, than there really are — suggesting that lots “suffer from systematic misconceptions about the world” that may be at least partially formed by impressions obtained from the media. In the bigger picture — the one spanning thousands of years — humanity is making astonishing progress in tackling problems that were once thought unsolvable. Knowing these facts matters because they show us that we have reason to be hopeful that we can solve our biggest remaining crises. It was not for nothing that environmentalist David Attenborough called humanity the biggest “problem-solvers to ever have existed on Earth” at the COP26 climate conference last year.
Looking for silver linings
The domination of bad headlines in mainstream news will not change anytime soon. Instead, we need to protect our brains by teaching ourselves better digital habits.
Reconnecting with myself and others helps me step back from doomscrolling, including reading books with real pages, seeing friends and family in person, and walking in nature. I believe we need to get better at finding and acknowledging good news, too — I can really recommend looking further into thinkers like Hans Rosling and Yuval Noah Harari for more facts on seriously real human progress.
Regulating your news intake does not mean that you stop caring or feel less compassion for suffering in the world. You are simply respecting your human boundaries so that you can protect your own mental health.
Doomscrolling only shows us the downside of the world — so now I try to scroll less and look more at the perfectly real silver linings out there.
Header image by Malachi Brooks on Unsplash