Doomscrolling: Is Reading the News Bad for My Mental Health?
We have access to more information than ever before, and our phones are designed to keep us engaged
Counsellor Rosie Jones explores the mental health impact of doomscrolling in a world seemingly full of uncertainty
If you are struggling with anxiety or stress, we have therapists and counsellors available here
In a world that’s been full of uncertainty, fear, and a health crisis, it is most likely unavoidable for the news not to be full of negativity. As a global society we are living through unprecedented times, and with it, unprecedented news coverage. With social media becoming ever more engrained in our lives, it sometimes feels hard to escape the news and its anxiety-provoking content. With this, it becomes hard for the news not to impact our mental wellbeing.
As a therapist, I have become more and more aware of the impact the news and social media is having on our mental health. It is a topic that can trigger anxiety, stress, and contribute to existing negative thoughts, and something which presents itself in the therapy room increasingly often.
What is doomscrolling?
The term “doomscrolling” was recognised as a word of note in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2020. The word means: the practice of obsessively checking online news for updates, especially on social media feeds, with the expectation that the news will be bad, such that the feeling of dread from this negative expectation fuels a compulsion to continue looking for updates in a self-perpetuating cycle.
I am sure many of you reading this will be thinking “yup, that’s me!”. We have all been there. We know reading something is going to make us feel more sad, more anxious, more angry, more upset…but we do it anyway. What is it that drives this and what is the impact on our mental wellbeing?
How does the news impact mental health?
Reading the news regularly and continuing to check it despite negative feelings can be damaging to our mental health. Choosing to continuously absorb such emotive messaging is like feeding an addiction. Studies have found that apps on our smart phones, especially social media, trigger the same system in the brain as is triggered with addiction, via the neurotransmitter called dopamine. Social media has been designed in this way to hook us in, to make us want to keep scrolling. The more we do it, the more we crave it, and the harder it is to stop. This makes doomscrolling something we do without thinking before we go to sleep or when we should be having a break from Zoom calls.
Not only can this impact key areas of our lives like our sleep, or our stress levels, but it can make any negative feelings already present in our hearts and minds feel worse and build up. Psychology researchers across the world are beginning to understand the effect that reading the news online can have on our emotions and our mental wellbeing. Key research after terrorist attacks found that the more people watched the news about a terrorism incident, the more likely they were to show symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Silver et al., 2013).
Studies have also shown that this effect works in a cycle, whereby the more traumatised an individual was by the incident, the more news they consumed, and then this made their trauma worse (Thompson et al., 2019). We see this idea in the definition on doomscrolling, in the “self-perpetuating cycle”. This implies that the more we are feeling anxious, for example, the more likely we are to seek out news that makes us feel more anxious, resulting in us feeling even more anxious as a result. Clearly, this could be harmful to our wellbeing.
Challenge yourself to say no to doomscrolling
The self-perpetuating cycle is something to be aware of and to catch yourself doing. How often do you find yourself endlessly scrolling through social media completely detached from what you’re reading? How often to you realise you’re on Instagram or Twitter and you aren’t even looking at anything in particular? That is how these apps have been designed, to keep us scrolling. Know that you are not alone as a result, and this is a challenge we all face in the world of social media.
However, being mindful of this and noticing when you are doomscrolling can make a massive difference. Sometimes, when we do things unconsciously it feels like it is out of our control. When we proactively try to be conscious of our behaviour, these behaviours then feel like choices we are making and feel in our control. So, the next time you find yourself in a bad mood, looking for bad news, pause and ask yourself: do I need to read this right now, or am I doomscrolling?
Sometimes in therapy we talk about challenging our negative thoughts, and not feeding them or giving them power. Our day-to-day choices and behaviours make a big difference to our mental health and our general wellbeing. Making the choice to push against the urge to doomscroll, the urge to check your feeds before bed, the urge to read the comments on something upsetting, can result in you feeling more in control of your happiness and less weighed down by emotions online impacting your own.
This article is not saying we shouldn’t ever read the news, or that it is not okay or understandable right now to be negatively affected by we read. Not at all. The goal is to bring this behaviour into our awareness, so we can all be better at recognising when we are compulsively doing this in a way that is causing more harm than good, so we can then care for ourselves by limiting time online when we need to.
As a millennial therapist, I recognise and appreciate the real impact of the online world on our realities. Get in touch if you are seeking support right now, I would be happy to see if I could help.
Rosie Jones is a verified welldoing.org counsellor in Clapham, London and online
Am I addicted to my phone?
Why we fear uncertainty and losing control
Is it time to quit social media?
How to challenge unhelpful thoughts
Why are we all so addicted to social media?
Silver, R. C., Holman, E. A., Andersen, J. P., Poulin, M., McIntosh, D. N., & Gil-Rivas, V. (2013). Mental- and Physical-Health Effects of Acute Exposure to Media Images of the September 11, 2001, Attacks and the Iraq War. Psychological Science, 24(9). https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612460406
Thompson, R. R., Jones, N. M., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2019). Media exposure to mass violence events can fuel a cycle of distress. Science Advances, 5(4). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aav3502