World Reimagined

World Reimagined: Why Can't We Stop Doomscrolling?

Users on their phones
Credit: Getty images

We've all done it. Maybe it's when some traumatic news event unfolds or maybe as a new COVID variant pops onto the global radar. We sit, staring at the screen, and seemingly endlessly thumb or mouse through social media posts discussing the incident or consume report after report from news and opinion sources.

We lie to ourselves and say we're staying abreast of the situation. But we know, deep down, we're doomscrolling.

Over the past two years, a growing segment of the population has binged on news, especially bad news. Sometimes it's not Twitter, TikTok or the Drudge Report, but rather an inability to tear ourselves away from 24-hour cable news networks – and the obsession is almost always on the negative. It might seem soothing, but some researchers say the habit heightens feelings of anxiety and fear – and can even affect a person’s physical health by overtaxing their nervous system.

But are certain people more likely to fall into the trap? That's the question a study published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior (an open access, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal published by the American Psychological Association) sought to answer.

Researchers from the University of Florida found that doomscrolling could be one of the few remaining things on this planet that doesn't have a political divide. Both right- and left-leaning people were equally likely to fall into the trap. When it comes to demographics, though, men and young people were more likely to engage in the behavior than women and older adults.

The UF researchers didn't find a specific trigger that got people doomscrolling, but said it often happens after bad news. What starts as an honest attempt to learn more about the situation engages curiosity, so people dig deeper and it becomes a fixation. Researchers found the obsessive behavior was associated with both a fear of missing out and constantly being connected online through smartphones.

"During emergencies such as pandemics, a wide variety of sources produce and distribute information about the topic, much of which is primarily negative," the report read. "In this context, smartphones and social media newsfeeds, which are designed to encourage frequent or extended engagement, can exacerbate a need to stay informed, and facilitate higher-than-usual amounts of fixation on negative news browsing."

A separate study by researchers in the United Kingdom and Canada studied the emotional consequences of doomscrolling – and found that even a short doomscroll session can have strong negative effects.

Just 2 to 4 minutes of looking nonstop at COVID-related news led to "immediate and significant reductions" in participant optimism and positive emotions, the study found.

There are physical effects as well. Processing the stress and anxiety caused by assimilating this bad news fatigues the mind and body and takes a toll on the nervous system, resulting in exhaustion.

"Although information-seeking is generally an adaptive coping strategy in times of threat, doing so during a pandemic may be less helpful," researchers said. "Unlike most world events, the threat of the current pandemic affects many life domains (relationships, education, work, leisure), and there is uncertainty about how long it will last, and what will happen next. Even a few minutes of exposure to COVID-related news on social media can ruin a person’s mood."

So how do you stop yourself from doomscrolling? It takes some self-discipline.

Start by turning off notifications and alerts on your phone for both social media apps and news outlets. Also, decide on a screen-free period, usually several hours before you go to bed, to give your mind a chance to wind down. Before you go to sleep, read a book instead of doing one last scroll through your phone. And finally, embrace phone-free habits, whether it's a brisk hike or playing with your kids outside – anything that gets you away from your phone is ideal.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

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