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Doomscrolling: What bad news does to us

By | Posted by Krishna Priya Pallavi, Delhi
Oct 28, 2023 10:58 AM IST

We consume an endless amount of bad news: war, natural catastrophe, the climate crisis. This is what it's doing to us.

A notification here, a news alert there, and we grab our phones almost automatically. Even when we try to take a break from our devices, we're often quickly drawn back into a spiral of bad news: violence, war and crises dominate our news feeds. And the transition from one to another is practically seamless: the pandemic was followed by the war in Ukraine, followed by earthquakes, natural disasters and war in the Middle East. The news is full of distressing and depressing stories and images.

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What is doomscrolling?

Once we've picked up our phones, it's easy to fall into a spiral of bad news. (Thomas Trutschel/photothek/picture alliance)

Doomscrolling is what we do when we keep scrolling through bad news, even when it distresses us. The term comes from the words "doom" — which signifies disaster, destruction, the end, fear — and "scrolling" — what we do on our phones when we surf the net.

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It's come into common usage to describe the way people endlessly consume bad news. But it really came into its own as a word during the pandemic.

A relic of the stone age

Doomscrolling is all about negativity bias. Humans have an inclination towards negativity.

Criticism, for example, has a stronger influence on behavior and cognition than praise. And the same is true for bad news over good news.

"The brain processes negative words faster, better and more intensively [than positive words], and that means we remember them more," said neuroscientist Maren Urner.

It makes sense, certainly from the perspective of evolutionary biology.

In the time of saber-toothed cats or mammoths, said Urner, the last thing you would have wanted was to miss the memo that you were in danger.

Our ancient brains are still trying to help us beat uncertainty by systematically gathering information. We want to be prepared for the threats that await us. And the more bad news we consume, the better prepared we feel.

But it's a fallacy. That kind of thinking may have worked with mammoths but it is useless in the age of apps and news feeds.

Apps designed like a bag of chips

Our news apps are designed to keep us hanging on. That idea of the "infinite scroll" was no mistake.

It's a psychological trick that was illustrated by researcher Brian Wansink's "Bottomless Soup Bowl Experiment" in the early 2000s.

In the experiment, one group of participtants got bottomless bowls of soup — the bowls kept refilling without the diners noticing. They ate 73% more soup than the participants in another group, who only got one portion of soup.

Those in the first group could neither tell that they had eaten more soup, nor did they say they felt fuller as a result.

Researchers today see parallels between Wansink's experiment and our uncontrolled consumption of news.

But there's another trick app designers use: the function "Pull-to-Refresh", which was lifted from the casino. You pull down, the page reloads, and wait with excitement because you have no idea what's coming.

It's like pulling the arm down on a fruit machine. As we wait for the anticipated win, our brains express the happiness hormone dopamine. And we crave more of it.

Constant stress in the brain

Watching and reading distressing news negatively affects our serotonin levels. We feel exhausted, tense, irritable, moody and can suffer disturbed sleep.

It's here that the stress hormone cortisol kicks in. When we feel stressed, cortisol can help us feel productive and active, temporarily.

But raised levels of cortisol can be damaging, because we're essentially in a permanent state of stress.

Doomscrolling affects different people differently, but studies have observed a link between excessive consumption of bad news and higher rates of depression, stress and other symptoms that are similar to those found among people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A collaborative study by psychologists and the news outlet Huffington Post showed that participants who had spent three minutes reading bad news in the morning were 27% more likely to say they'd had a bad day six to eight hours later.

Another group in the same study read so-called "solutions-based" news, and 88% of them said they had gone on to have a good day.

The media's role in feeding bad news

Media companies know they can generate more clicks with bad news. And more clicks mean more circulation, more ad revenue and more engagement.

But if doomscrolling is so unhealthy for us, what can — or should — media outlets do to improve the situation?

Researcher Maren Urner said journalists should ask themselves 'What's next?' while reporting stories — describing a problem is important, but looking for solutions should be part of the research process, too.

Your news consumption: a personal balance

Yes, it's important to stay up to date and know what's happening in the world, but you don't have to follow developments 24/7.

There's no magic formula, but a good way to start the day is to avoid turning on every device in the house the moment you get out of bed.

Try to reflect on how much news you consume and when it's appropriate to do it.

Fight the urge to doomscroll by choosing trustworthy sources, background stories and fewer clickbait headlines.

Set yourself a time and duration for reading news, such as 20-30 minutes of an afternoon. Try to avoid scrolling endlessly throughout the day.

And turn off notifications and breaking news alerts. Read a daily summary instead.

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