How to Protect Your Mental Health in the Era of Doomscrolling
Like a car crash, the casual observer can’t quite look away from, we’re all guilty of taking far too much time out of our days to scroll through sites like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
While social media has always been known for pockets of outrage and misinformation, this black hole of bad news has only gotten worse. A global pandemic, all-time-high wage inequality, massive unemployment, high-profile violence against women and non-white citizens – it seems like there’s no light left in the world.
Whether we’re scrolling through social media to try and keep up-to-date on rapidly changing news or the lockdown lives of our family and friends, it always feels like some nugget of good news or an easy solution to all of the world’s problems is only a scroll away.
The truth is there isn’t an easy answer. All of these issues have no simple solution and that truth alone is keeping us in perpetual misery as we try to search for light amongst the doom.
What is Doomscrolling?
Doomscrolling, otherwise known as doomsurfing, refers to “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing”.
Humans are naturally pre-disposed to hyper-focus on this negativity because, in evolutionary situations, negative things could often harm us physically. Frankly, our brains latch on to negativity to keep us safe. However, when this focus can’t be turned off, it ends up stressing us out and makes us mentally and physically sicker. Doomscrolling also plugs into our human curiosity and desire for answers. When you throw tumultuous global problems into the equation, users keep scrolling in the futile hope of an easy solution that doesn’t exist. The stress of never reaching a conclusion often leads to anxiety, depression, and the physical issues all of those problems can manifest.
Social media has learned to latch on to these biological factors. Their very business models are designed to keep you scrolling through them for as long as possible. If they can keep you hooked with trending topics, bad takes, or through general outrage, they can feed you as many ads as possible. The more ads they can get in front of a user, the more the platform gets paid.
Is There a Healthy Way to Use Social Media?
While the downsides of social media are well known and well-reported, there is hope for a healthier co-habitation between humans and technology.
In a recent Harvard University study, Mesfin Awoke Bekalu, a research scientist and co-author of the study, found that social media can be beneficial to our mental health. When used as part of an everyday routine to respond to content others share, a user is more likely to experience feelings of social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health. However, those that use social media for emotional connection have worse mental health outcomes. These users tend to “[check] apps excessively out of fear of missing out, [and are] disappointed about or [feel] disconnected from friends when not logged into social media”. Based on the research, it seems like social media can be used in a positive way, as long as you approach it with a healthy mindset and set limits for how you interact with it.
In that vein, there are a number of concrete things you can do to improve your relationship with social media. You can work towards breaking from the habit of scrolling through your newsfeed when you wake up or before you go to bed. You can also have a truthful conversation with yourself about how social media is making you feel and you can set time limits on how long you interact with it. You can also try to counteract the negativity social media feeds into your life by engaging in small acts of kindness or thinking of a handful of positive things about each day, no matter how small. The truth is, surrendering yourself over to doomscrolling is a lot easier than actively choosing to engage your brain in other ways, like going out of your way to infuse positivity into your life and the lives of others. However, the effort is worth it.
For all of its downsides, social media can also be used to do active good in the world – as we see every time there’s a disaster or a particularly widespread act of injustice. Social media is always flooded with community resources to keep people informed and involved or donation links to help those affected. Just recently, Randy Park, (the son of Hyun Jung Grant, one of the Atlanta shooting victims), raised almost $3 million of his $20,000 GoFundMe goal to rebuild a life for himself and his younger brother. This staggering amount wouldn’t have been possible without users on social media spreading it far and wide.
Let’s face it. The doom in doomscrolling is never going to go away – the world will always have tragedy, hopelessness, and destruction. While there’s merit in keeping yourself up-to-date on the wider world, our brains aren’t built to handle the knowledge of every terrible act happening in real-time. Being overwhelmed by tragedy will never help anyone – it will only lead to burnout and a rapid decline of your own mental health. However, healthy use is attainable. All it takes is being mindful of how we engage with social media and recognition of when it’s time to put down the phone and focus your attention on something that brings you joy instead.
If you’re reading this right now, either on your phone or computer, why not put it down and do something good for yourself instead? Go for a walk, drink some water, call a loved one, or do some deep-breathing exercises. You’ll be better off in the long run.
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