There is a lot of bad happening in the world right now. Record wildfires are devastating the west, an earth quake in Haiti, flooding in Europe, hurricane season is underway, and then there is the situation in Afghanistan. On top of all of it, the delta variant of Covid-19 isn’t going way. It seems that about the only thing missing is an appearance by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In times like this it is easy to resort to “doomscrolling,” where one has a tendency to surf or scroll through bad news. The trend to look for the worst on social media ticked up last year in the early stages of the pandemic and has continued into this year.
With a feel good story there can be a happy ending, and a sense of closure. But with bad news there also seems to be more to tell.
“Negativity is contagious and unsatisfying. After reading devastating news about Afghanistan, Haiti, and the upsurge in Covid-19 infections, we tend to want to read more, which can lead to the phenomenon of doomscrolling,” said Dr. Nathaniel Ivers, department chairman and an associate professor in the Online Master’s in Counseling Program at Wake Forest University.
“Unfortunately, this cycle can be detrimental to our outlook on life and our mental health. It may lead to a sense of learned helplessness, which is the idea that no matter what we do we are incapable of improving our plight. Learned helplessness can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety,” said Ivers. “Doomscrolling also may lead to negative behaviors, such as inaction. If the problems we are facing are intractable, why should I exert efforts towards noble causes, self-improvement projects, or prosocial and preventative behaviors, such as wearing a face mask or getting vaccinated.”
Bad News Leads
Even those who aren’t looking for bad news can all too easily find it because they’re turning to social media rather than traditional news outlets. It is on the social platforms where the bad stuff can drown out the good.
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“According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the fall of 2020, 11% of Americans get their news from social media sources,” explained Dr. Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, assistant professor for the Online Masters of Nursing at Duquesne University.
“Moreover, some recent statistics have indicated that social media usage significantly increased in 2020 relative to one or two years prior,” added Nguyen Steers. “However, due to the streaming nature of social media, people might be experiencing mental health effects by seeing more bad news related to current events due to a phenomenon known as the ‘Mean World Syndrome.’ That is, the more bad news people consume through social media, the more likely they are to think situations are worse than they are leading to mental anguish and possibly depression. For instance, reading more about the fall of Afghanistan or the rise in Covid-19 breakthrough cases in those who are vaccinated, might lead to feelings of despair.”
The other issue is that the ongoing pandemic has continued to limit physical social interaction, and many people use social media to fill the void to maintain personal connections.
“With the constant access to information and a 24-hour news cycle there is a greater probability of individuals falling into doomscrolling,” warned Dr. Michael Kiener, professor in the Myrtle E. and Earl E. Walker College of Health Professions and director of the rehabilitation counseling program at Maryville University.
The problem is that especially for those who don’t have regular social contact, who may have continued to work from home – or even for those who are trying to return to normal – the constant feed of negativity is taking its toll on one’s well being. But it also becomes addictive.
“A hyper vigilant focus on news, much of it negative, has the potential to increase anxiety, a sense of uncertainty or danger, and a negative state of mind,” said Kiener. “It is important to note that it is natural to seek out information, especially concerning events, to help us make sense of our daily lives. Equally important is recognizing when the constant search for information or doomscrolling begins to negatively impact major life functions like relationships, employment, and or leisure activities and to seek professional help.”
Breaking the cycle isn’t as easy as turning off the connections, as that can lead to isolation, experts warn. Instead, it may be a better idea to try to look for the good news in the world – and perhaps not to rely so heavily on social media as the main source the state of the world.
“Some ways to combat the mental stress of doomscrolling would be to limit the amount of time you spend reading the news on social media. For instance, read the content on your social media feed for a half an hour each morning and do not check it again until the next day,” suggested Nguyen Steers
“Creating a habit of checking your state of mind or mood is a good first step to becoming your own best mental health coach,” added Kiener. “When individuals create healthy habits, they are taking ownership of their mental health and are reducing the chances of having negative events significantly impacting daily functioning.”
But even a break from social media in general can have a positive experience.
“Exercise to de-stress through lifting weights, yoga, or going for a jog,” Nguyen Steers suggested. “Go for a walk or a picnic outside to green spaces. A change of scenery especially outdoors can help you to transition away from electronic devices. Try filling your time with a hobby that you enjoy that does not involve electronic devices such as knitting, painting, doing a puzzle, and/or playing a board game with family.”