What Doomscrolling Does to the Brain

Not knowing anything at all will make you anxious, but so will reading all bad news all the time

Illustration: Shira Inbar

It’s not hyperbolic to say that almost all the news these days is bad news. A deadly, economically crippling pandemic has now dragged into its seventh month. Wildfires sparked by climate change are still ravaging the West Coast. The country’s political landscape has descended into republic-threatening chaos, and racial, cultural, and economic inequalities are as stark and divisive as ever.

Not only is it all bad — it’s also all around us. Social media usage has increased as people spend more time at home due to Covid-19, and likewise, Nielsen reports that weekly TV watching grew by 1 billion hours at the height of nationwide shelter-in-place orders in April. We’re taking in more media than ever. And often, that means reading or watching gloomy story after gloomier story, or, as New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose called it back in March, “doomsurfing.”

Taken together, this is a dangerous formula. Consuming too much bad news on your phone or the TV can be harmful — studies find it’s bad for your physical and mental health — and the constant bombardment only raises the risk.

Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, first studied the effects of exposure to negative news after the 9/11 attacks. “We found that people who were engaged in more television exposure in the first week after the attacks were more likely to develop mental and physical health effects in the aftermath,” she says.

At the start of the pandemic, Silver and her colleagues published an article predicting that the mental and physical health consequences of the coronavirus news deluge would be similar. But actually, she says, it’s worse. First, the way we consume news is totally different now than two decades ago — endless scrolling wasn’t a thing in 2001.

“But it’s not just that the media landscape has changed,” Silver says. “It’s that the pandemic is a chronic, slowly unfolding disaster. This is a different circumstance because it’s unfolding and escalating. We don’t know how bad it will get, but we know it keeps getting worse.”

Reading the news is a defense mechanism

The human brain is hardwired to consume the news. In times of uncertainty, your brain’s evolutionary instinct is to seek out as much information as possible, says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center.

“When you’re anxious about something, you want information, because it’s how we make our environment safe,” she says. “Because we are inherently wired to try to protect ourselves, it’s a biological imperative to understand the environment.”

It’s like being constantly on the lookout for spiders, and actually seeing them — everywhere.

Fear of the virus and its effects — or of any of the other negative things in the news, such as political divisiveness or reports of police brutality — can lead to hypervigilance, just like any other phobia.

“People who are afraid of spiders monitor their environment to make sure they don’t see any spiders,” says Silver. Apply that to the current state of affairs, and it’s like being constantly on the lookout for spiders, and actually seeing them — everywhere. And despite your brain’s desire for the information, having it doesn’t actually make you feel any better.

Getting caught in the bad news cycle

“The more you see bad things, the more worried you are about bad things,” Silver says. “That worry is associated with more media. That media is associated with more worry. It’s very difficult to extricate yourself from this vicious cycle. It’s very difficult to stop it.”

In research conducted after both the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Silver and her colleagues found that “distress can increase subsequent trauma-related media consumption that promotes increased distress to later events.” In other words, the more you watch, the worse you feel, and the worse you feel, the more you watch.

People who get caught in the cycle, Silver says, are far more likely to develop anxiety and depressive symptoms. “In the 9/11 work, we also found that people are more likely to develop cardiovascular and neuromuscular problems,” she says.

Rutledge adds that the circumstances of Covid-19 intensify the cycle.

“Covid is really an interesting and different thing, because as psychologists we know what happens when people are traumatized by events, and we know what happens when people are isolated,” she says. “We haven’t done those things together before, and the outcome for both combined doesn’t make a pretty picture. One kind creates acute stress, one creates chronic stress.” And when we’re stressed out like that, we’re more eager for news and more negatively affected by it. “People who are more anxious are more likely to search for more news, and more likely to be triggered by it.”

Self-care means knowing when to turn it off

Most news sites and social media apps are deliberately designed to keep you scrolling, which makes it even easier to fall down the rabbit hole. It’s happened to almost all of us: You’re planning to just check the headlines before bed, and before you know it you’ve been reading anxiety-inducing articles for an hour.

No one’s suggesting you stick your head in the sand; in fact, being totally uninformed is likely to have the opposite effect, making you even more anxious. But you do need to break the “doomsurfing” cycle, and the first step is to take accountability.

“The truth is, you are the person scrolling,” says Rutledge. “You have the remote. You could be watching silly cat videos.”

Reduce the amount of news you’re consuming, Silver suggests, and be more deliberate about where it comes from.

“I don’t watch television — I haven’t for decades,” she says. “I don’t have social media accounts. I don’t watch videos, and I’d argue I’m as knowledgeable as the next person. But I carefully monitor the amount of time I’m spending engaged with media. It’s a very conscious decision on my part. I typically check the news on a computer or on my phone in the morning and at night.”

Going cold turkey on TV and social media might seem drastic or unrealistic, but you don’t have to constantly surround yourself with it. Turn off push notifications from news apps on your phone, and try to only check them at predetermined times, once or twice a day. You can also set limits, using apps like Flipd, AppBlock, FocusMe, and others to lock yourself out of select apps after you cross a certain screen time threshold. Timing matters, too; Rutledge says reading bad news before bed contributes to sleeplessness, which only worsens stress and anxiety.

It’s also a good idea to cut down on the number of channels you’re viewing or accounts you follow, and make sure the ones you choose are delivering reliable facts. Too much slant can make your media experience even more anxiety-inducing.

“People need to be careful about what they’re watching, and say, ‘am I getting more information from this?’ and actively stop when there’s no more information to be had.”

“When you undermine trust in information, it increases conflict at the social level,” Rutledge says, “because everyone has their own story and there’s no overarching narrative. But all of these things conspire to raise the general anxiety and general stress level of pretty much the entire population.” Most news sources, Rutledge adds, have a tendency to rehash the same stories over and over. “People need to be careful about what they’re watching, and say, ‘am I getting more information from this?’ and actively stop when there’s no more information to be had.”

But even when you do take a break, Rutledge says, it’s important to do something that actually takes your mind off the negative. “You could stop watching the news and go to the grocery store with everyone in masks and people behind plexiglass and that’s going to be anxiety-provoking. It’s important to take deliberate actions to de-stress; to relax and find ways to reframe things.”

That means finding sources of entertainment and distraction that let you check out — at least briefly — from current events. Watch Netflix, Rutledge suggests, go for a walk in the woods, or hang out with your mom on Zoom.

The more you monitor your consumption and cut down on the time spent reading or watching, the easier it becomes to break out of the bad news/anxiety cycle. In short, doomsurfing is bad, so knock it off. “Not knowing anything at all will make you anxious, but so will reading all bad news all the time,” Rutledge says. “So, figure out how to get as much news as you need to stay informed, and then turn it off and up your cat video consumption instead.”

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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