Dictionary.com recently added hundreds of new words to its catalog, many of them capturing the zeitgeist of 2020, the year COVID-19 overtook the United States. One of those new words is “doomscrolling”: the act of consuming large quantities of negative online news in a sitting.
As you might imagine, mental health experts say doomscrolling is not good for you. UVA Today reached out to Bethany Teachman, a University of Virginia professor of psychology and an expert in managing anxiety, who leads the Program for Anxiety, Cognition and Treatment Lab.
We had lots of questions for her about this new phenomenon and are happy to say that she has lots of helpful answers. Read on.
Q. Why do people do doomscroll?
A. This time has been filled with tremendous uncertainty – COVID-19 risk, vaccines, racial justice, the economy, politics, climate, the health of those we love – we have enormous unanswered questions in almost every critical sphere of life. With these unknowns comes a natural desire to resolve the uncertainty, so we seek information.
There is a healthy side to this information-seeking that helps us to know what precautions we need to take during this time of elevated threat. Yet there is clearly also an unhealthy side that can leave us constantly on edge and worried we will miss the critical piece of information that will keep us safe and give us the answers we crave.
Of course, there is no one magic piece of information, news story, or Facebook post. Instead, we have to learn to tolerate the uncertainty.
Q. Are certain personalities more predisposed to this behavior?
A. We don’t have all the answers to who is spending hours a day during the pandemic doomscrolling, but we can infer from other research that people who are vulnerable to anxiety are going to be especially likely to fall into this cycle. This is because anxiety is associated with a bias to pay extra attention to negative information.
Anxious individuals quickly orient to negative cues, so threatening headlines capture attention rapidly, and they find it hard to disengage once they are reading negative information.
This pattern can reinforce anxious individuals’ sense that the world is a dangerous place and they must be extra vigilant for signs of danger, which of course can lead to more doomscrolling in an endless cycle of monitoring for threat and trying to find answers to questions when those answers don’t really exist.
Q. How does doomscrolling affect mental health?
A. There is nothing wrong with seeking information and staying informed, but when a person gets caught in hours and hours of reading negative stories, it can give an exaggerated sense of threat and increase the feelings of danger and vulnerability.
We know, for instance, from past times of trauma and crises that individuals who engage in extended media consumption tied to the trauma are more likely to develop later mental health problems, like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depressive disorders, compared to individuals who place limits on their negative media consumption.
It is, however, important to distinguish between doomscrolling and other social media and news consumption. Spending time online has provided an important way for people to stay at least virtually connected when they are not able to physically connect. While we wouldn’t want children or anyone else spending their whole day on social media, the research suggests there is not a strong, reliable association between spending time on social media and negative mental health.
Rather, it depends on the role it is playing for the person – if time on social media is generating a lot of envy or anxiety, it is likely not helpful, but if it is supporting connections and helping a person gather reliable, balanced information, it can serve a positive function. So, it can be helpful to monitor how you (or your family members) feel after spending time online and track the impact it has on your mood.
The other big issue to consider tied to the negative impact of doomscrolling or other social media use is what valued, healthy activities are not happening because of the extensive time online.
Going outside, getting exercise, actually talking to others, and getting good sleep are all really important right now as our normal routines have been so disrupted. Thus, it’s critical that time online does not take away from meeting those other needs that help us manage our mental health.
Q. The late philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who published pivotal studies on how media affects society and culture, said if you give people too much information, they resort to pattern recognition. Is that theory at play here at all? What are the consequences of being overly informed?
A. Part of the issue is with being selectively informed and not having the information match the needs of the situation. Epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists likely can’t be “overly informed” right now!
They need extensive information to do their jobs effectively, and they are hopefully attending to positive as well as negative information and using objective criteria to evaluate the quality and reliability of the information they consume.
This differs markedly from doomscrolling, in which a person is selectively focusing on negative stories and overweighting information that suggests a possible threat without placing the information in context and having a balanced perspective.
The pattern recognition ties to the heuristics or schemas we use to rapidly process information. While useful, they can easily bias us to quickly categorize information without appreciating its nuance.
For instance, a post that mentions a possible side effect of a vaccine is almost instantly added to the “world is dangerous” mental pile, without considering that the threat may be extremely minimal given the infrequent occurrence of the side effect.
Q. How can people stop doomscrolling? Are there coping strategies you can suggest?
A. I encourage people who are worried about whether they are doomscrolling to track both the time they are spending online reading scary and disturbing news stories and posts, and track the impact that time is having on their mood (e.g., levels of sadness, anxiety, and anger) and sleep. Then set some clear guidelines to try.
For instance, they can decide that they will check the news and social media for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning and 20 to 30 minutes after work/school, but keep it closed at other times. They can also decide not to check past a certain time in the evening so it doesn’t disrupt sleep by keeping them up worrying.
People can try these strategies for a week and see whether their mood and sleep improve. There is not one magic rule to follow – it is likely to require some trial and error to figure out what will work for each person, so monitoring the impact of different strategies is helpful.
The eerie sight of empty playgrounds, grocery shelves, and schools serves as a constant reminder of the newfound presence in our daily lives—COVID-19. Scrolling through social media platforms has the same effect. An endless sequence of posts that pertain to the novel coronavirus clutters our threads.
Even with attempts to moderate use or filter content, the looming presence of COVID-19 remains. Although social media can be mentally taxing at times, it has and continues to be an invaluable resource to share information and provide evidence-based content online. However, attempting to maintain relevance for the Canadian Journal of Public Health (CJPH) during these times has proven difficult.
COVID-19 has influenced our use of technology. Not only have we been forced online to complete the majority of our work, but physical distancing means our social lives have moved online to find shared interactions. Many organizations have capitalized on this online presence by amending their promotional material to incorporate COVID-19 or related content. We steered CJPH accounts in the same direction.
Having recently assumed the role of assistant to the Social Media Associate Editor, it has been encouraging to see the impact of a committed social media presence. However, COVID-19 disrupted our standard line-up of posts, marked by a dwindling number of impressions and engagements.
The CJPH social media aims to engage our followers to act as a hub of relevant information (Fuller and Potvin 2020). During this time, it was apparent that we could either adapt to fulfill the appetite for COVID-19 material or post material that seemed irrelevant. We decided to harness the new potential of our social media platforms by leaning into the pandemic.
Prior to COVID-19, there was an emphasis on promoting Online First articles. These posts were replaced by two separate categories: featured COVID-19 researcher of the week and past CJPH publications with an infectious disease theme. Researchers of the week were selected from the list of Government of Canada-funded COVID-19 projects. Posts highlighted their contributions and past CJPH publications. Similarly, we retrieved past publications that contained pandemic or infectious disease content to provide a relevant distraction. CJPH recently revealed a special section on COVID-19, therefore creating a home for COVID-19-related contributions.
Pandemics seem to have a specific signature; a lasting characteristic that is separate from the devastation of the associated morbidity and mortality. Through the course of the current pandemic, information coupled with misinformation, rumours, and conspiracy theories were rapidly disseminated through social media.
For example, statements that individuals can be protected or cured from COVID-19 by consuming alcohol, hydroxychloroquine, or adding hot peppers to meals (WHO n.d.). Addressing the additional pandemic of social media panic has accompanied the utilization of public health measures to control the transmission of the novel coronavirus (Depoux et al. 2020).
Distinguishing between accurate and inaccurate information spread through social media can be difficult. This spread of misleading propaganda leads to fear, anxiety, and confusion (Rosenberg et al. 2020). Luckily, there are many benefits to these platforms. Social media can be harnessed and utilized as a tool to communicate public health measures.
The task of providing the public with daily updates on active cases, prevention strategies, and restrictions aims to increase awareness of the general population (Gao et al. 2020).
Social media also facilitates exchanges in the public health community by enabling further communication and connection (Fuller and Potvin 2020). Together, this public health community can help promote accurate information and fight misinformation locally, nationally, and internationally (Rosenberg et al. 2020).
COVID-19 has brought hardship and new challenges for many. Throughout the uncertainty that comes with encountering a novel disease, the work of public health has been more important than ever. COVID-19 has pulled public health into the public eye, requiring committed leadership, guidance, and research. The recent spotlight brings new expectations along with never-ending workdays.
The public health community has embraced the task at hand while enduring the same concerns about the health of their family and friends. For those of us trying to continue to promote the exceptional work of this public health community, we are required to remain flexible in order to provide followers with reliable and relevant material. COVID-19 will remain in our presence for the unforeseeable future; we must continue to remain connected, engaged, and informed.
Source: University of Virginia