Perception isn’t always in line with reality, as we overdose on social media.
It’s the early hours of the morning and, despite the plans you made to have an early night, you’re still wide awake. The voice in your head urges you to go to sleep, but you can’t quite manage to peel your eyes away from the small phone screen in front of you.
With every swipe of your thumb, you sink a little further into the virtual quicksand until you’re drowning in exasperating ‘hot takes’ and breaking news updates. When you finally come up for air, hours have passed, and you realise your perfect night’s sleep has been lost to another long session of doomscrolling.
‘Doomscrolling’, or ‘doomsurfing’, refers to our tendency to spend hours consuming depressing, upsetting, or anxiety-inducing news from our phones or computers without being able to stop ourselves or take a step back. This tweet from October 2018 is widely considered to be the earliest reference to this social phenomenon, its author writing, ‘Taking a break from doomscrolling and being inundated with things and stuff. I’ll be back Tuesday or something’.
Since then, the term ‘doomscrolling’ has permeated the online world. In April 2020, online dictionary Merriam-Webster added it to its ‘Words We’re Watching’ list, delving into its origins and usage in a dedicated blog post. ‘During times of crisis and uncertainty, some of us pay more attention to the news, looking for answers’, the post reads. ‘And this might not surprise you, but we have to say it: a lot of the news is bad. And yet we keep scrolling, keep reading article after article, unable to turn away from information that depresses us’. On Twitter, the term gained momentum when Karen Ho, a financial reporter for Quartz, started tweeting nightly reminders for people to stop doomscrolling, encouraging them to unwind and give themselves a break from the 24-hour news cycle.
By andrea pearce: culture Columnist
Though the term ‘doomscrolling’ was only coined recently, our propensity for negativity is nothing new. In the 1970s, Hungarian professor, Dr George Gerbner, invented his own term, ‘mean world syndrome’, which refers to the cognitive bias that makes us perceive the world as more dangerous than it really is. Gerbner believed that long-term exposure to violence-related content (whether the violence was real or fictional) could cause increased feelings of fear, anxiety, and pessimism. Given the sheer quantity of sensationalist, doom-laden news stories on social media, it’s no wonder that we’re on such high alert, convinced us that the apocalypse is just around the corner.
But if we know deep down that doomscrolling is harming our mental health, why can’t we stop doing it? The most likely explanation for such behaviour is our primal instinct to protect ourselves and those around us. There’s no doubt that in ‘simpler’ times it would have been advantageous to be aware of as many threats as possible but, in the modern age, this strategy seems to have outlived its usefulness.
Social media and the 24-hour news cycle aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but there’s nothing to say that we can’t learn to control our online habits. Ignoring the headlines isn’t a solution but, as many others have pointed out, there’s no need to absorb them all at once. Perhaps the answer to doomscrolling is simply moderation.
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