Doomscrolling or doomsurfing is defined as the obsessive engrossment in rolling news of current and impending disasters. The word epitomized 2020 and has continued to suit 2021 pretty well, from new scarier Covid-19 variants to the uncontrolled wildfires and torrential downpours of global heating.

The compulsive desire to dive into the dread of doomscrolling suggests some interesting questions, why do we addictively keep our fingers on the pulse of bad news? How does the obsession affect our mental health? And is doomscrolling even the problem, is the phenomenon not but a symptom of an insecure world?

Why are we drawn to doomscrolling?

An explanation why we compulsively doomscroll is that our brains are hardwired to a natural negativity bias – an evolutionary survival mechanism that focuses our attention on what could potentially harm us.

Doctor Ken Yeager, a psychiatrist at Ohio State University, agrees with that hypothesis, he told the online publication Health: “We are all hardwired to see the negative and be drawn to the negative because it can harm us physically.” He further explained that we are driven to doomscrolling because of this survival instinct and because it feels like we “have a sense of being able to control any of that bad news.”

The negative bias in human cognition and behaviours was documented in a 2019 University of Michigan study, which found that negative news content made viewers more attentive; findings also evidenced by a Russian news organisation, which lost two-thirds of its readership when it only reported good news for a day.

Along similar lines, one of the reasons why we come across so much doomscrolling news is that journalism facilitates our inbuilt tendency for that perversely gratifying habit. News media commercializes and plays to our negative biases with provocative headlines and stories designed to shock and compel its audience to read further; unscrupulous journalists have even been known to exaggerate, distort, and fabricate stories to reach the desired formula – for as the journalistic wisdom goes, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.

How does doomscrolling affect mental health?

Besides the naturalness of the urge and its addictiveness, doomscrolling has been linked to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder and the constant reinforcement of feelings of depression and anxiety.

Research conducted by the University of Sussex revealed that participants who mainly watched negative news stories showed an increase in anxiety-driven behaviours. And a study conducted by researchers with the Huffington Post found that people who began the day watching negative news were almost a third more likely to continue that attached negative emotion throughout the day.

The doomscrolling phenomenon could also be considered to be a confirmation of ‘mean world syndrome’, the cognitive bias hypothesized by Professor George Gerbner in the 1970s. Prof Gerbner asserted that audiences, exposed to the ever more graphic violence and distressing scenes displayed in the media, experience increased and sometimes irrational fears, anxieties, pessimism, and an elevated state of alert to perceived threats.

Therefore, for viewers, emotional states, attitudes, beliefs, and opinions are, according to Prof Gerbner, directly influenced by their media consumption. His hypothesis seems self-evident when we think about how media in the form of government propaganda can sway the opinions and emotions of their public or how ads have the uncanny capacity to influence our own behaviours.

What can we do to support our mental health?

The Cybersmile Foundation, a digital wellbeing non-profit, heard from Doctor Judy Ho, who recommended that we try to manage our doomscrolling habits by limiting and allocating time slots for our online interactions. She suggested that restricting our exposure to 25 minutes before starting work or before an activity would help reduce time spent thinking about the potentially stressful or worrying content, especially if the primary time you doomscroll is while in bed.

Is doomscrolling the problem? Or are we just simply close to catastrophe?

Despite a wasted minute of extra time in 2010, every year since 1991, the Doomsday Clock has ticked ever closer to midnight, now positioned at 100 seconds to the apocalypse. The Clock is a metaphoric symbol that indicates the world's vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and more recently, the underprepared and clumsy response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the Doomsday Clock illustrates, our perception of the current state of the world through the news cannot be dismissed as mere journalistic hyperbole or solely to our negative cognitive biases. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report detailed, undoubtedly, the world is in a precarious spot, and its prognosis isn't looking too optimistic. Scientists in the report said that ‘it is unequivocal that human-influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land'. They continued that the irreparable damage to the climate that we will increasingly experience over the coming decades is no longer about prevention but limitation.

It might be worth bearing in mind that every generation has had their own ‘end of days’ challenges to face and that generations before us have also ‘narcissistically’ imagined that they might be the last – be that by nuclear annihilation (the Cold War) or by the machinery of modern warfare (the World Wars). In this light, doomscrolling could be thought of as this generation’s way of experiencing that feeling of perpetual insecurity, and through social media witness the challenges of our age.

Although that thought shouldn’t diminish the severity of those historical and contemporary challenges, or the negative impact to their and our mental health, which happen because we are informed about them. However, the feeling that we are insecure and are on shifting sands out of our control isn’t unique to our time.

The countering of helplessness in the face of disaster has always come from motivated people looking to save the world from the cliff edge, not by endlessly ruminating or turning away from the problem, but by tackling the challenge head-on. Whilst the advice from Dr Judy Ho is undoubtedly invaluable to maintain a balanced, healthy outlook on the world and not succumb to an overly pessimist outlook (as with mean world syndrome). Nevertheless, we should also consider whether our feelings of anxiety and depression while we doomscroll should be avoided, or if those feelings should be used as a source of motivation to transform the state of the world.