Meg Kennedy is a self-professed “doomscroller”.
“It’s knowing the world is a mess, and seeing it play out on social media,” the 23-year-old from Ballarat explains.
“I feel it’s bad for me, but I can’t stop. I know that sounds really bad.”
In a world full of uncertainty and technology designed to capture our attention, it’s becoming harder to turn away from news and social media.
One survey by researchers at the University of Canberra found that news consumption was increasing during the pandemic, particularly among women and younger people.
And more than half of people surveyed said that news about the coronavirus made them feel more anxious.
What’s doomscrolling and why do we do it?
Doomscrolling is a relatively new term. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s the “tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening or depressing.”
So why are we so captivated by bad news, and why do we find it so hard to turn away? One suggestion has to do with the way our brains work.
“We know that when we’re exposed to negative stimuli, like bad news or experiences, our brains fire more,” says Lou Farrer, a senior research fellow and psychologist at the Australian National University.
Psychologists call this tendency “negativity bias”, and it’s one of the reasons we gravitate to stories about death, disaster and misfortune.
For Meg, scrolling through the news – as distressing as it may be – is also about control, something she hasn’t had much of lately.
“Reading the news gives me some sense of control in a world where everything for me has changed,” Meg says.
“I know it’s going to make me feel crap, but at least I know what’s happening.”
Before coronavirus, she’d been on a working holiday in the UK. Now she’s back living with her parents in country Victoria and looking for work.
“Everything for me has changed and turned on its head completely,” she says.
Balancing the need to know with wellbeing
One thing that has changed with the internet and social media is that you can follow the news in real time.
Sora Park is Associate Dean of Research at the University of Canberra, and co-authored the report on news consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the old days, with legacy media, news was broadcast at a certain time, and newspapers were delivered at a certain time. And that made it manageable,” she says.
“But now everything is going on all the time.
“Finding that balance is now left to the individual. Nobody gives any information about managing news consumption … and that’s why they’re doomscrolling.”
How to regain control
Have a circuit-breaker
One of the challenges is that we’re often on autopilot when we’re scrolling on our devices.
It’s easy to lose track of time or find yourself doing something completely different to what you intended.
To combat this, Dr Farrer suggests setting a time limit in advance as a “circuit-breaker”.
hey, are you doomscrolling?
It's almost Monday. Lots of big things happened this weekend, good and bad. Don't forget to take care of yourself and your mental health. Rest is still important. Sleep well.
— Karen K. Ho at #IRE20 (@karenkho) June 15, 2020
Apple and Android devices do have features like Screen Time or Focus Mode, which can help block apps when you need to focus or before bed. And there are apps and browser extensions that do the same on computers.
The problem, of course, is that these tools are easy to circumvent.
Physically distance yourself from your devices
A more reliable solution is to hide your devices away.
“I don’t keep my phone or laptop in my room at night,” Meg says.
“I usually put my technology away and I read a book or watch a film. So I find that time quite calming.”
There’s a reason it’s helpful to have your phone or devices in another room – it’s distracting even when you’re not using it.
One study found smartphones reduce a person’s ability to focus and perform tasks even when turned off or placed face down on a desk.
“It’s the same with phone use when it’s affecting people’s sleep. One of the strategies we suggest is to keep the phone out of the room or on the other side of the room,” Dr Farrer says.
Why Meg has bought herself a ‘dumb phone’
About a month ago, Meg bought a “dumb phone” with limited features.
“It was $20, it was from 2009. I use it occasionally, like when I’m out walking or when I really need to switch off,” she says.
It might sound extreme, but it works. And one important reason is it takes the temptation away.
“I’ve tried deleting apps, but I have no self-control,” Meg says.