Doomscrolling is the evocative name for something most of us have done: scrolling endlessly through Facebook, Twitter, or whatever your social media platform of choice is, looking for bad news, hateful opinions, or people to negatively compare yourself to. It can be deeply distressing, and yet, like picking at a scab, sometimes we just can’t seem to help but do it. What’s going on?
Why we doomscroll
Doomscrolling starts with a simple, common desire: we want our feelings to be validated. When we are feeling a particular way—no matter what feeling that is—having someone or something confirm that we are right to have that feeling is comforting. This manifests in many ways in our lives: having someone affirm our feelings fuels a sense of connection to them. Watching a sad movie or listening to sad songs when we’re sad makes us feel a little better, as does listening to angry music when we’re angry or happy music when we’re happy. And, when we’re angry at the world, afraid of where it’s headed, or just feeling down on ourselves, news that confirms the belief that things are wrong, statements that confirm the people saying them are hateful, and photos that confirm other people are prettier likewise make us feel momentarily a little better.
So does that make doomscrolling in search of that news and those opinions a good thing? Not exactly. The problem is the reward pattern it provides. You see, when someone is rewarded for behavior, that motivates them to keep doing it, and the pattern of the reward changes how motivating it is. Perhaps surprisingly, the most rewarding pattern is not to reward the behavior every time; it’s to occasionally reward the behavior at random. If you pay someone a penny every time they pull a lever, they’ll swiftly get bored. Make that a slot machine, however, and they’ll happily pay you to let them pull the lever in the hopes that next time will be the time that gives a payoff.
That’s what’s happening when you doomscroll: every once in a while, scrolling down your feed gives you a jolt of validation, so you keep doing it in the hopes that next scroll will be the one. Meanwhile, you’re scrolling past ad after ad, making money for the social media site: remember, they’re factories that manufacture attention for advertisers, and you’re the raw materials, not the customer.
The cost of doomscrolling
Speaking of harm, doomscrolling can definitely take a toll. Much like the gambler feeding coins into the slot machine, you’re spending something while you chase that elusive reward, and it’s unlikely to be worth it.
One of the things you’re spending is time. It’s hard enough to find time that isn’t sucked up by our culture’s incessant demands for productivity; doomscrolling eats up huge amounts of time that could be spent having fun, connecting with others, doing self-care, or resting.
It can also do emotional harm. Validating an emotion feels good in the short-term, but confirming negative self-talk entrenches it more deeply, reinforcing our negative beliefs about ourselves and our world. Consuming a bunch of pictures of people you think are prettier than you validates your self-doubt and makes you feel briefly better (the $100 jackpot off the slot machine) but it also makes the thought “I’m ugly” stronger and harder to dismiss for days and weeks to come (the $1,000 in quarters you spent to get that jackpot). Same goes for feeling like the world is a dangerous place full of hateful people. That time spent seeking out the bad makes it much harder to see the good afterwards, which ultimately distorts your perception of reality to be more negative than it is, encourages feelings of futility, and makes it both harder to feel good and harder to do good.
Finally, doomscrolling before bed can be a double whammy: the blue light from screens can disrupt your natural sleep cycle, and the doomscrolling itself can promote anxiety that likewise makes it harder to sleep.
Tips to limit doomscrolling
There are lots of ways to control doomscrolling, but the most important is to recognize what it does for you and find less harmful ways to get those benefits. Try to get your news from a variety of sources that don’t overemphasize the bad, and look to friends, music, or fictional media for validation of your feelings.
Once you’re getting those needs filled more healthily, limiting doomscrolling is just a matter of limiting social media time in general—which is not the same as eliminating it! Try scheduling your social media time when you know you’re going to be interrupted after a little while, such as during a scheduled work break or before your pet’s feeding time. If your problem is doomscrolling before going to sleep or first thing in the morning, charge your phone overnight somewhere you physically have to get out of bed to reach. (This can help reduce hitting the Snooze button, too!)
However you manage your time, if you find yourself doomscrolling often, finding other sources for its benefits and reducing the time you spend doing it can have real positive effects on your mental health.