It starts with a ping, maybe just before bed or while you’re watching Netflix on the couch. The latest breaking news pushes itself to the front of your notifications and begs for your attention.
From there, it’s a tap and a few thumb flicks to social media just to see what’s happening. Next thing you know, you’re caught in a torrent of bad news. Each headline drags you farther down your timeline, turning what was meant to be a brief surf session into another hours-long doomscroll.
If this has happened to you, you’re not alone.
What Is Doomscrolling?
Over the last few years, doomscrolling — as this behavior has come to be known — has become so ubiquitous with social media usage, it feels like it has always existed. It’s often an automatic response to seeing bad news, said Benjamin Johnson, a psychology of media professor at the University of Florida who has studied the behavior.
While the instinct stems from a healthy desire to be informed, it’s a habit that can end up having a negative impact on your quality of life.
What Is Doomscrolling?
Doomscrolling describes the habitual act of scanning social media with the goal of seeking out bad news for multiple hours at a time.
Though the earliest known usage of the term can be traced back to a tweet in 2018, it wasn’t until 2020 that it took off, according to Johnson. People, isolated from friends and family, surfed social media compulsively looking for the latest bits of news on the pandemic, developing a new habit in the process.
Freelance reporter Karen Ho is widely acknowledged for introducing the term into popular lexicon. She sent out regular tweets during the pandemic reminding people to stop doomscrolling, and in doing so, drew attention to the issue.
When Johnson first encountered the term in 2020, he wondered whether it was simply a clever pop-culture phrase describing a behavior that’s always existed or something new.
“We have our pop culture understanding of what doomscrolling is … But how can we classify that and formally define that from a scientific perspective?,” Johnson said.
In 2021, Johnson and his colleagues Bhakti Sharma and Susanna Lee published a study confirming doomscrolling as a unique, scientifically observable behavior different from “trying to stay informed” or being a “news junkie.”
They boiled it down to a list of 15 behaviors that strongly correlate to the act of doomscrolling. The four most common ones include:
- Having the urge to seek bad news.
- Losing track of time while reading bad news.
- Continuously browsing while not being aware of it.
- Craving negative news.
“We define it as a habit that involves people’s use of social media news feeds, specifically they’re scanning … through content in pursuit of information that’s timely, current and negative. While they’re doing that, they’re getting immersed,” Johnson said. “People lose track of time and they’re going down rabbit holes.”
What Triggers Doomscrolling?
Anyone who has doomscrolled before knows how easy it is to get swept up in the tide of bad news cycles. But what drives this compulsion?
While doomscrolling is new, the compulsion to seek out bad news isn’t. There’s a reason news channels and websites are a non-stop stream of negative events — people are naturally drawn to it in a way that we aren’t with good news, said Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. A 2014 study confirmed that even when people claimed they were more interested in good news, they consistently selected bad news stories over good ones. The reason, according to another study, is that negative news elicits a stronger emotional response.
“But it gives the illusion that the world is unsafe, which, of course, keeps you tuned into the news even more.”
When a mass shooting or the latest Covid toll pops up in our notifications, it triggers strong feelings of anxiety and fear. Those, in turn, tap into our innate curiosity to gather more information as an effort to feel safer, Greenfield said. So we seek out more stories on the topic in the hopes of finding information that will help us, which only breeds more fear and thus the vicious cycle continues.
“It’s curiosity with the basis of helping increase the likelihood of your surviving if there really is danger,” Greenfield said. “But it gives the illusion that the world is unsafe, which, of course, keeps you tuned into the news even more.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s stories of war, mass shootings or a natural disaster, any devastating or negative breaking event can trigger a doomscrolling session.
Johnson’s study also found that people who doomscroll also experience feelings of negative FOMO, or fear of missing out. They don’t want to experience the disaster, but they feel compelled to keep searching for the latest news because they don’t want to miss out on knowing about it, Johnson said.
Anxiety strongly correlates to the experience of doomscrolling too, though there’s not enough evidence yet to determine whether it causes a person to seek out bad news or it’s the effect of it, Johnson said.
Algorithms and Design Patterns Feed Into Doomscrolling
But social media and web design have been marching toward this type of usage for a long time now.
For starters, social media’s use of targeted algorithms creates the perfect environment for endless doomscrolling, Johnson said. Once you click on one negative news story, it populates another, then another, skewing your feed toward doom and away from a more balanced perspective.
In addition, the use of infinite scroll and nested content are designed to lead users down information rabbit holes and glued to their website, said Chris Sainsbury, founder of UX Connections, a UX consulting firm.
“It’s a bit like a casino where they don’t have clocks showing ... Having infinite scroll, it keeps you in there and you don’t realize how long you’ve been in that particular thread.”
As users, we subconsciously rely on indicators like the scroll bar, “next page” links and navigation menu visibility to give us a sense of how long we’ve spent on a page and where we are on it. Each time you have to click a link that opens a new page or tab, it takes you out of your scrolling spell. And navigation menu visibility gives you an outlet to return to the top of the page or break out of the scroll, Sainsbury said. Without them, it makes it easy to lose track of time scrolling on a website, hunting for one more bit of news.
“It’s a bit like a casino where they don’t have clocks showing,” Sainsbury said. “Having infinite scroll, it keeps you in there and you don’t realize how long you’ve been in that particular thread.”
Some websites are starting to embrace more positive UX practices that de-emphasize engagement for engagement’s sake, but Sainsbury isn’t hopeful that social media will follow suit. As long as social media runs on advertising, they’ll be encouraged to keep users glued to their screens, Sainsbury said.
But being aware of these triggers can help you recognize when you’re being sucked into doomscrolling.
Why You Should Stop Doomscrolling
The good news is, if you find yourself doomscrolling, you aren’t doomed.
While it’s addictive in the moment, Greenfield has yet to treat a patient for it. And Johnson didn’t find any connection between doomscrolling and a person’s psychological well-being based on the World Health Organization’s Five Well-Being Index, which involves five self-reported questions that measure a person’s mental wellness and is often used in clinical trials and studies.
“It skews their idea of the world and everybody in it.”
The bad news is, doomscrolling can have a significant impact on your short-term quality of life.
“It might not have long-term harm, but certainly it makes people feel lousy in the short term,” Johnson said. “There’s potential for harm. We shouldn’t overstate the risk, but it can be detrimental in the short term for people’s mental well-being.”
For starters, Johnson said people in the doomscrolling study reported that they felt more negative emotions like anxiety and agitation after a scrolling session.
Though the behavior doesn’t leave a long-term impact, it can shape your perception of the world around you as long as you engage in the behavior. The more you indulge in the habit, the more likely you are to start seeing danger everywhere around you, thus increasing your feelings of anxiety, Greenfield said.
“It skews their idea of the world and everybody in it,” Greenfield said. “If all you’re looking at is bad news, then that’s your view of the world.”
Seeking out negative news can also make you more despondent, helpless and hopeless, Greenfield added. It can lead you to detach from other people and become less present in the moment. Reading only bad news has also been linked with causing anxiety and personal worry, according to a study on the psychological impact of negative news.
How to Stop Doomscrolling
Breaking your doomscrolling habit, especially during a bad news cycle, isn’t easy.
The combination of social media and bad news will always be a powerful force. Those companies aren’t going to suddenly make their website or apps less addicting, Sainsbury said. Still, there are steps you can take to curb your negative news consumption.
How to Stop Doomscrolling
- Turn off news and social media app notifications.
- Set a timer before you start scrolling.
- Track your screen time and social media usage with apps.
- Download apps that block your Internet or limit access to distracting social media websites.
- Read a positive news story for every negative one.
- Balance your social media news feed with sources of positive information.
For starters, it can be helpful to turn off app notifications that can often trigger doomscrolling sessions. When you do go on social media, Sainsbury recommends setting a timer on your phone or entrusting a friend or loved one to send you reminders to stop doomscrolling. These little notices can help break you from the spell of endless scrolling and keep you aware of how long you’ve been online.
Screentime notifications and apps that measure your social media usage (like Social Fever or Offtime) are also useful tools to curb your consumption, Sainsbury said. They can help you gain perspective that the apps don’t provide. If the draw is still too strong, you can also block distracting apps and the Internet across your devices via apps like Freedom, BlockSite and Cold Turkey.
“The sheer scale of these companies dedicating all of their resources, all of their brain power to keeping users on their services does make it tough for users to carve out their in-real-life time,” Sainsbury said. “It does come down to individual responsibility, so users who are having trouble should think of strategies to control their own devices. … The tools are there, and it’s a case of ‘Go and get them’ if you feel you need the help.”
Finally, it’s important to balance your news consumption. Greenfield recommends setting a goal for yourself: For every bad news item you look up, try to find a positive one.
To make that easier, take the time to diversify your news feed. Johnson suggests following funny meme accounts, comedians and sources of positive news to break up the negative news drip. You can also follow Ho’s reminder account, Doomscroll_Bot, on Twitter, which will send frequent reminders to stop doomscrolling.
No matter how bad the news may seem, it’s important to remember that life isn’t all doom and gloom. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to set down your phone, drink some water and take a moment for yourself.