-

The science behind ‘doomscrolling’

I’ve always been wary of my time spent on social media, but now I can’t stop scrolling through Twitter.

I think I’m addicted to Twitter. In the half-hour since I’ve sat down to write those six words, I’ve opened and closed the website three separate times.

Maybe I’m obsessed with the rush of discovering a notification each time I log in, or perhaps I’m just procrastinating. As a 22-year-old who originally created a Facebook account in elementary school (to play FarmVille), I’ve grown up with social media. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but at various points last year I fell into a trance-like state of scrolling like I never noticed before.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, that trance I was falling into had a name: doomscrolling. I soon learned this is the act of harming your mental health by repeatedly scrolling through negative news online.

Karen K. Ho, a finance and economics reporter at Quartz, became famous in the spring for writing nightly tweets to remind her followers to stop doomscrolling. Merriam-Webster has written about the origins of doomscrolling and doomsurfing, and are “watching” the words to see if they meet the requirements to be included in their dictionary. Doomscrolling was also chosen as New Zealand’s word of the year for 2020.

Prior to 2020, I was successful in managing my time on social media, but the events that happened over the year made it difficult for me to stop watching the news unfold online.

It started last January when former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Southern California on Jan. 27. It was surreal seeing an athlete I watched so frequently as a kid suddenly pass away. Although he retired in 2016, Bryant’s death felt as if it officially marked the end of my childhood.

I try not to log onto Twitter before noon on most days and avoid social media entirely on weekends, but that Sunday, I couldn’t stop scrolling through the news and tributes on my feed in disbelief.

Two months later, I fell into a similar spell while scrolling through tweets about COVID-19 as the virus was officially declared a global pandemic. A few more months, and then came the news of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake. Finally in the fall, as the second wave of COVID-19 erupted, my anxiety was fuelled again by watching the uncertainty and political division in the run-up and outcome of the US election.

One after another, the daily updates on the record-setting numbers of infections and deaths, racial injustice, and the uncertainty surrounding the US election made it feel like each time I logged onto Twitter I was succumbing to a series of virtual punches from a heavyweight boxer.

On my computer, I’d surf through the website without realizing an hour or two had passed.

I used to solely think of social media as a fun way to post photos, my work, and keep in touch with friends. However, I noticed that even after logging off Twitter and my other social media accounts and after reading the constant negativity online, those feelings of dread followed me into my day-to-day life.

As we usher in a new year, I want to stop scrolling like I’m in a trance. Constantly feeling a cloud of negativity isn’t a way to live an enjoyable life. I want to stop feeling physically ill from reading the latest news on Twitter, but day after day, I can’t help logging on.


 

Judith Andersen, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, first heard the term “doomscrolling” in a magazine article last fall.

Andersen, who co-wrote a paper for Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2019 on the impact stress has on health, said it’s the perfect word to explain the phenomenon of endlessly reading through predominantly negative news snippets and posts on social media. Although the term has been around since 2018, its popularity boomed in 2020.

I chatted with Andersen on a mid-December Monday, just after ten in the morning. I had managed to refrain from checking Twitter up to that point in the day—I remember that I was going through a particularly rough patch online.

She explained that when we take in negative information, it causes stress responses in our bodies and we excrete hormones such as cortisol and activate chemicals, including adrenaline.

“Even if we aren’t thinking that we are scared and we are running for our lives, we have subtle reactions to the negativity we are taking in,” Andersen said.

Those chemicals—sitting and stirring in our bodies as we scroll through Twitter—are biological responses that have evolved over thousands of years to help us in dangerous situations. Your muscles may tense and your breathing might increase in response to unsettling news.

“Evolutionarily, we are very attuned to negative signals in order to survive, so it makes sense our bodies would do this to try and help us adapt,” she said.

What that means, however, is when we don’t get up and physically burn off those stress chemicals and responses, that nervous energy sits in our bodies.

“Most of us aren’t burning that off quickly,” Andersen said. “We sit there and [the chemical and hormonal reactions] stew in our body and [don’t] dissipate.”

The excretion of those chemicals impact our health: if you’re running for your life, you need cortisol and adrenaline to help you cope. Those chemicals balance each other out and your body metabolizes them in tense situations. However, problems arise in your immune system when you have too many of those chemicals.

“If you have too much of those [stress hormones], that’s directly related to inflammation and pro-inflammatory cytokines—which are a part of the immune system that are excreted when you are starting to feel sick—and they start to make you feel yucky,” Andersen said.

“What [research] has found now is that these pro-inflammatory cytokines, these proteins, can be excreted even when there’s no pathogen or bacteria to fight off.”

Of course, the results of that nervous energy aren’t always harmful.

You might feel uneasy and have butterflies in your stomach before a sports match, drama performance, or school test. Those chemicals are released to help you during a nerve-wracking task, and afterwards, you may feel a sense of pride for completing one of those feats.

However, by scrolling through the latest COVID-19 updates on Twitter, you’re taking in negative news without a release of those chemicals stirring in your body.

Andersen was right—reading the seemingly constant stream of COVID-19 cases, deaths, and lockdown measures being extended in British Columbia, I was feeling depressed. I slid into a further negative state of mind by repeatedly Googling, “When will the COVID-19 pandemic end?”—something I’ve done on various nights since March.

After reading predictions about the pandemic easing anywhere from next summer to the fall, or even early 2022, I scrolled through pictures on my phone from my family’s last annual Gingerbread House contest from 2019, wishing I could return to that day.

“You can imagine that if you sit in the morning doomscrolling, all this negativity is coming in, things are happening inside of your body,” Andersen said.

“It’s raising your level of unease.”


 

Is social media bad?

It’s a question that has been on my mind since last January, pre-pandemic, when I first noticed my doomscrolling habit. Obviously, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allow us to keep in touch with friends and family, and serve as a platform to organize events around world issues like climate change and racial injustice.

Yet, maybe selfishly, I’ve often wondered if I’d be more productive without social media, or if my mental health would improve on nights when I can’t get off my Twitter feed.

Andersen doesn’t think social media is inherently bad, but there are certain tendencies that can make online platforms vessels for raising stress, such as the ability to post anonymous negative comments from a computer rather than in-person.

“It is a media source just like any other media,” Andersen said. “It’s possible, I think, to do education and advocacy work through that channel—it’s just a new way of doing it.”

There are also ways to combat the toxicity of social media and doomscrolling.

Specifically, she suggests planning something positive after checking in with Twitter or news that may heighten stress, such as calling a friend, reading a book, or exercising. Being aware of the information you’re taking in online and realizing how it’s affecting your body and mind can help you from falling into a doomscrolling wormhole.

“It’s like medicine,” Andersen said. “Plan a walk to burn off that unease and stress.”

Also, Andersen said it’s important to realize that you can be a positive conduit of change online. Forwarding videos and posts from marginalized communities or individuals and leaving a positive comment saying you learned something can help create a more encouraging online community.

Having new concrete ways to ease the dread that results from doomscrolling gives me comfort as we head into a new year. Whether we like it or not, Twitter or social media won’t be going away anytime soon. Ironically, I’ll be posting this piece all over my Twitter when it’s published.

I don’t want to completely exile myself from social media.

While I fear absorbing the negativity that can make those websites so toxic, I’m still proud to use Twitter to share my own work and read articles from my peers. It’s a delicate balance I hope to manage better in the future, primarily through FaceTiming my mom and her two-year-old Bernedoodle, Theo, after I feel myself falling into a trance scrolling through my Twitter feed.

Hell, it might also be best to start practising some of those coping techniques now since I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve checked Twitter while writing this article already.

Like this article?

We’ve got even better things in store, with the help of our incredible donors.

Our donors make what we do possible. By making a monthly contribution to The Pigeon, you would be directly helping us to further our cross-Canadian coverage. We devote a portion of our earning specifically towards paying marginalized contributors, like we did in our recent Tracing Threads project. Other ways we spend donor contributions include upgrading our website, reaching out to new readers, and paying research expenses.

Can you become a monthly donor for as little as $10 a month today?

With your financial help, we can continue to share unique stories, prioritize marginalized voices, and create positive change in the Canadian media landscape.

Josh Kozeljhttp://thelighthouse775881165.wordpress.com
Never good with numbers, Josh knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue writing. He is in his fifth and final year as a Creative Writing student at the University of Victoria, and spent three years as a Staff Writer for The Martlet. He’s also written for the Globe and Mail, CBC, and The Tyee. Oftentimes you’ll see Josh running the trails of Victoria in ridiculously short shorts.