How to avoid doom scrolling on social media

2020 has been a rough one, nobody’s denying that, but our incessant flood of bad news stories is actively altering how we perceive the world.

How many times in the last few years have we heard the phrase ‘this is the worst year ever’ or ‘I hope next year is better than the last’? Our obsession with negativity and global issues worsening has increased hugely over the last decade, and much of it is misplaced.

Okay, so I realise 2020 has been a particularly bad one. As I write this the world is close to entering a second wave of coronavirus infections and lockdown rules are tightening by the day. The US debates are the political equivalent of a live circus act and to top it all off the manhole covers outside our office exploded today. Things aren’t exactly going swimmingly.

But our addiction to news cycles and Twitter headlines is a real phenomenon that can skew our perception of modern life and make us think things are worse than they actually are. Access to events and live information from everywhere at all hours of the day and our tendency to gravitate toward them via social media – an act known as ‘doom scrolling’ – is a very new concept, one that we haven’t fully wrapped our heads around.

What we do know is that it causes stress. A sample group that deliberately kept up with the news cycle was surveyed by the American Psychological Association in 2017 and reported lost sleep, anxiety, and increased fatigue. Finding a balance between staying informed and protecting our own wellbeing is difficult for many of us, but understanding why we fixate on negative news may well help you to avoid the dreaded doom scrolling.


Why do we gravitate toward negative news?

First off, it’s worth mentioning that mainstream news is predominantly alarmist in nature. No journalist rocks up to a location with a camera crew to talk about where things aren’t happening, after all.

Most of the time we hear about places and people if they’re abnormal, absurd, or generally distressing. Trump being president of the US, for example, or fires raging across California with increasing frequency ever year, are important and upsetting topics for many – but they also generate clicks and reads.

We’re far more likely to interact with news stories like these that makes us anxious or put us on ‘high alert’. We have an innate urge to be prepared for threat, and our brains want to stay watchful for the next potential disaster that could cause harm to ourselves or our close loved ones.

It’s an evolutionary trait that we’ve used for millennia to survive, except these days most of us don’t need to hunt for food or worry about a nearby tribe wiping us out in our sleep. I may have to worry about that exploding manhole cover, but that’s more my problem than anyone else’s.

All this means that ‘scary’ news stories are the most likely to generate buzz and interaction online which, in turn, encourages media outlets to report on the things that make us the most scared or outraged. It’s a perpetuating cycle in which both sides fuel the other – and it’s also been hijacked by figures like Trump to direct as much attention toward them as possible.

Being loud, brash, and absurdist is the winning combination to keep people engaged. It doesn’t matter how substantial your rhetoric is – you just have to be the most ridiculous and aggressive in the room. Our news feeds become rotations of depressing and fearful headlines as a result, which causes us to fixate on the negatives and miss the important, positive work that’s happening all around the world right now.

A 27-year-old woman has raised $85,000 USD for COVID-19 relief by climbing all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains, of which there are 58, for example. Young poll workers are helping to protect the elderly in this year’s US elections with ‘Power The Polls’, where 450,000 Millennials and Gen Zers have signed up to volunteer as poll station workers. That’s all just this week.


How can I avoid doom scrolling?

It may be impossible to avoid doom scrolling entirely, as nearly all of us use social media on a daily basis out of necessity, but a good initial step is to recognise the ways in which the news can alter and manipulate your biases.

Exposure to the media has a long record of encouraging pessimism that dates all the way back to the 1960s – coined ‘mean world syndrome’ – and today is no different. Recognising why an article exists and where it was written will help you to take a step back from that initial emotional knee jerk response of panic or fear.

All this may sound obvious, but it’s been proven that older people are more likely to share fake news stories from bogus sites, and echo-chambers of misinformation have interfered with our elections significantly in the last five years. It’s clear that we all need to be more critical when citing news from websites and consider where we’re getting our headlines from.

Another good tip is to limit your social media and smartphone use throughout the day. iOS and Android operating systems can tell you how long you’re spending on your device, and which apps you use the most. It may be worth paying attention to these numbers and trying to adjust your activity accordingly. Less time on news sites and Twitter could likely improve your moods, as studies have shown that social media causes negative feelings and emotions in users, particularly Gen Z.

Finally, consider the times with which we live. Yes, climate change is rapidly becoming more urgent every year and our international politics are a bit turbulent, to say the least, but we live in relatively safe and civilised times. We may be adjusting to lockdown life but we aren’t all foraging for food or killing each other over farmland. Life expectancy is far, far higher this century than it’s ever been, we have instant communication access with anyone in the world, and we can stream any song we like from the palm of our hands.

I don’t mean to downplay the serious issues of our times, of which there are many. But it’s worth remembering the good things about modern life when our feeds are so routinely filled with the dreary stuff. Try and cut back on the news and take a break from your usual social media apps, and see if it helps you to feel better about the world.

The less Trump rants you have to see per day, the happier you’ll feel. Trust me.

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