As information and communications technology has advanced, and with news travelling around the globe in nanoseconds, our appetite for such input has become voracious. We are no longer satisfied with the daily newspaper and scheduled radio and TV news bulletins; we now require access to constantly updated information at all times, in all locations and on demand. But news, by its nature, tends to be bad news and reading more and more of it has led to a process described as ‘doomscrolling’ (or ‘doomsurfing’). This constant trawling of bad news can negatively affect our mental health and wellbeing, and has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although widespread amongst young people, doomscrolling can affect people of any age group, gender and social class and may be a side effect of the need to see what others are doing. This is something social media has conditioned us to do. Smartphone users will relate to the experience of snuggling down in bed and picking up the phone for one last look, which then turns into a couple of hours of exposure to negative and worrying input. Even though it may not make us happy, content is designed to be compelling, with brightly coloured emotive headlines and hooks, interspersed with jokes and ads.
Unfortunately, the constant need to know what’s happening, which leads to this doomscrolling, is adversely affecting our mental health and emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing. Alex La Via, digital wellbeing specialist at Live More Offline, quotes studies that show that while, “using social media as a way of connecting … can have a positive impact on our mental health, it is the way we use social media which makes the difference to our wellbeing. Passive scrolling and taking in negative content online are not good for our wellbeing.”
Negative effects can include sleep deprivation, fear, anxiety, depression and problems arising from lack of exercise, such as obesity. Severe psychological consequences of excessive internet use – specifically the development of pathological and addictive online behaviours – are currently the subject of research at Nottingham Trent University by Dr Daria Kuss, who heads up the department of cyberpsychology there.
Anecdotal evidence that many of us will relate to suggests that doomscrolling – and therefore its likely harmful effects – has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. Katie, a 26-year-old receptionist living in Harrogate, West Yorkshire, is just one of many who admits “I am a doomscroller”. She says she checks her social media – Twitter and Facebook primarily, and later Google for news – around 40 times a day. It’s a habit that has “increased significantly” since the start of the pandemic.
“Every time I pick my phone up, I have to check. Before I get into bed I check, and once I am in bed I scroll through again. Then I struggle to sleep thinking about things.”
A general increase in internet use is confirmed in surveys such as this one by OFCOM, which shows that online usage has increased throughout lockdown. In April 2020, internet users in the UK spent an average of 4 hours 2 minutes online each day.
There are various steps we can take to limit the temptation to doomscroll. Obviously, devices can be switched off or left in another room to charge overnight. Apps can be removed from a phone and put on to a laptop, where filtering can control potential exposure to news when all you intended to do was check for emails. Another suggestion is to swap some of your news-based apps for those that promote exercise or positive thinking. After all, your smartphone apps – such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – are all going to be there when you turn them on again. But the advantages of turning them off and caring for yourself emotionally, psychologically and physically are important and should outweigh the ‘need to know at any cost’, especially since the cost will be to your own health and wellbeing.
You have the control – use it!
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