All Gloom and Doomscrolling

Why do we seek out negative news, and how can we fix this habit?


photo by Jess Daninhirsch

The compulsive urge to search for bad news can at once cause and stem from anxiety.

Aris Pastor, Staff Writer

It’s not an exaggeration to call the last few years horrible. Many factors contribute to this verdict—COVID-19 pandemic, a politically fraught atmosphere culminating in a contentious election in 2020 and the later march on the Capitol in 2021, and now, an international crisis spreading fears of a third World War.

And yet, despite the already present stress and anxiety of the past few years, I often find myself scrolling through TikTok or Instagram in these situations, fully aware that it will only make me feel worse. 

This behavior is not unique to me, either. So many people spent 2020 “doomscrolling” that the Oxford English Dictionary named it the “word of the year.”

In late March and early April of 2020, a German survey found a connection between “frequency, duration, and diversity of media exposure” and increased symptoms of depression, and both general and pandemic-related anxiety. A later Dartmouth study found a similar connection between phone usage and an increase of anxiety, depression, and sedentary behaviors in college students during the beginning of the pandemic. 

More recently, journalist and creator of the Doomscrolling Reminder Bot Twitter account Karen Ho found a spike in engagement in the week Russia invaded Ukraine. 

In truth, doomscrolling isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. The way people used to watch the news, searching for negative information, is very similar, but with one key difference: social media and online news sources are constantly posting new information, making it easier than ever to obtain immediate, up-to-date news at any time of the day.

This isn’t necessarily all bad—after all, being aware of what’s happening in the world is important. However, the danger comes when the accessibility of social media and news sites is abused. 

“It’s this obsession with trying to make sense of the crisis or all of our crises,” Benjamin K. Johnson, a researcher for a University of Florida study on doomscrolling, said. “It’s the combination of living through a crisis and having a smartphone with a newsfeed that never ends. It just keeps going. So, we keep scrolling.”

In 2021, a study on the biological roots of doomscrolling looked at the similarities between information gathering in humans and monkeys. Senior author Ilya Monosov, an associate professor of neuroscience, neurosurgery and biomedical engineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said, “We’re living in a world our brains didn’t evolve for. The constant availability of information is a new challenge for us to deal with. I think understanding the mechanisms of information seeking is quite important for society and for mental health at a population level.”

With the advent of social media, the practice has become quite universal. The University of Florida study found that doomscrolling was common on both ends of the political spectrum, and it isn’t localized to where tragedies happen, either. 

Judith Andersen, a health psychologist at the University of Toronto in Canada who collaborated with Roxane Cohen Silver on a study researching the effects of media coverage after the 9/11 attacks, said,You didn’t have to live near the epicenter of the [9/11] attacksyou could just as easily be in rural Alabama. It was dependent on how much media you consumed.”

Similarly, in 2014, a study surveyed 4,675 Americans in the weeks following the Boston Marathon bombings collecting data on the amount of media participants consumed. It found that those who consumed more than six hours of media coverage per day were nine times more likely to experience symptoms of high acute stress as compared to those that only watched a minimal amount of news. 

The University of Florida study stated that there was no clear cause to the behavior, but many psychologists think that doomscrolling is a coping mechanism connected to obtaining as much information as possible. Psychologist Jade Wu even compared dwelling on an endless feed to Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Wu thought that similar effects, like muscle tensions, fatigue, or depression, could be found between both those with GAD and habitual doomscrollers. 

“Doomscrolling is kind of like practicing having GAD,” she said. “If you run every day, that’s going to impact your muscles. If you doomscroll every day, that’s going to impact your psychology and your brain.”

The University of Florida study researchers were unable to determine whether the anxiety surrounding doomscrolling is caused by the practice or contributes to it, but they believe that the two feed into each other. The longer you scroll, the more anxious you get, but it also makes you want to do more of it. 

So how can doomscrolling be remedied? 

Pamela Rutledge, director of the California-based Media Psychology Research Center, stresses that awareness of our online habits is the best way to keep ourselves from doomscrolling. She recommends keeping a timer to limit the amount of time you spend on social media, as well as maintaining physical distance from the online world. Social media tends towards cynicism, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of negative headlines and under-researched Twitter posts. 

Rutledge also recommends searching for positive news to combat the negativity. However, behavior change among journalists should be encouraged as well. Although negative news has been found to generate more clicks, it often paints an inaccurate picture of reality. 

For more politically related issues, journalist Jennifer Liu recommends direct action. Joining humanitarian efforts, protesting, and contacting your political representatives are all significantly more helpful to crises like the Ukraine invasion than worrying on social media. Making sure that information is accurate is also important. Websites like Media Bias/Fact Check can ensure that the news we read does not mislead us into more panic than necessary. 

As Whitney Goodman, a licensed psychotherapist in Florida, tweeted, “…when things get this overwhelming, we have to protect ourselves and consume media consciously. Do what you can. Create the solutions you have access to. Find your way of being helpful.”