There are some days when I get caught in a spiral of reading bad news. Swiping left on my home screen leads me to a list of articles on “5 daily habits you didn’t know were bad for your health,” along with updates on how climate change has already reached a point of no return, another mass shooting, and another bill introduced to prevent trans youth from accessing healthcare.
Information and news have never been as accessible as they are now, just a few taps away at any moment. No matter how long I spend scrolling online, there’s always something new to read and to be informed about. Especially when you or your loved ones are personally impacted by ongoing crises, it sometimes feels necessary to read every piece of bad news that crosses your newsfeed.
What is doomscrolling?
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when most people were isolated in their homes and spending lots of time on screens instead of connecting in-person while facing the global threat of a pandemic, many people fell into a pattern of addictive social media use now known as “doomscrolling.”
When facing a lot of unknowns, consuming all the information we can was a way to feel more informed, in-control, and connected with the world around us. Doomscrolling is “a short term response to uncertainty.”
It also makes sense that when we’re more alert to dangers, as people that have experienced trauma and/or victimization, we pay extra attention to things that might threaten our safety, including on social media. Even anti-trans legislation being introduced in other states, for example, may have social ramifications for our sense of safety.
“As Pamela B. Rutledge writes in Psychology Today, our brains instinctively pay attention to potentially dangerous situations ‘as part of the biological imperative of survival,’ and therefore it’s nearly impossible to turn the other way when we sense an imminent threat, even if that ‘threat’ is on a tiny screen. This leads to even more anxiety and stress, and the more stressed out we are, the more vulnerable we are to misinformation in our search for answers. We can begin the cycle all over again.’”
But spending lots of time and energy engaging with bad news doesn’t actually help us feel more informed or in-control. Instead of getting the relief we’re searching for, doomscrolling reinforces negative thoughts and perceptions, worsens mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, and triggers the release of stress hormones in our bodies.
Queer and trans people, especially trans youth, are also more likely to experience doomscrolling. Social media offers a form of connection that many of us can’t find in our daily lives, along with vital information about transitioning, support groups, trans-affirming providers, coming-out advice, and much more. When I hear discussions about the negative impacts of social media on young people’s mental health, I can’t help but think there’s often a lack of understanding for how important a role in trans peoples’ lives the internet plays in being connected with our communities.
Anyone who spends more time online is likely to encounter negative news articles, along with hateful messages and comments on social media, which have been increasing over the past few years. For people who are facing marginalization in multiple areas of their lives, this kind of hateful messaging reinforces itself and can be hard to ignore.
How can we shift away from doom scrolling?
In researching for this blog post, I found a lot of advice about “breaking the cycle of doomscrolling” that didn’t take into consideration how important it can feel to stay informed and connected as queer and trans people, as people who have experienced trauma, and as people with other identities that are disproportionately impacted by today’s political climate and the impacts of climate change and COVID-19.
Searching for information is an attempt to meet our needs for control, certainty, safety, and connection. At the same time, the ways that we engage with information online has an impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. With that balance in mind, here are some strategies for shifting toward a more mindful approach to consuming news and information on social media.
1. Set a timer. Instead of trying to completely cut news/social media out, which might be an unrealistic goal, try setting a limit on how much time you spend on those activities. Decide that you’ll spend fifteen minutes, or half an hour, reading the news after work, and change gears once the time is up. Some apps allow you to set limits on the amount of time you can spend using them, which may be a helpful way to set up an external barrier to endless scrolling.
2. Seek out joy. We often spend a lot of time consuming some form of media, and we get to choose what to engage with. What brings you joy? What could you replace some of your time spent scrolling through devastating headlines with? For me, it’s watching horror movies, reading books about my latest fascination with queer history, and playing exploration video games with big open worlds. If you find yourself scrolling for entertainment (but end up in a negative media loop), try seeking out positive trans stories.
On some social media apps, like TikTok and Instagram, we have some control over what the algorithm shows us by intentionally seeking out content we want to see. This might mean searching for and watching cute animal videos instead of lingering on posts about anti-trans policies.
3. Notice what it feels like in your body to encounter negative posts. I was finding that when I encountered online hate (not directed at me, but comments on a trans-positive post or video), it would cause me to have a stress response. My heart would beat faster and my breathing became shallow as I scrolled through the responses, hoping for some condemnation of this hatred that would somehow make me feel that things were a little bit better. Even after turning my phone off, I would sometimes feel “revved up” while my thoughts were occupied by hateful messages.
While it’s not always possible to control what you’ll encounter online, we are in control of what we spend time engaging with. I can choose to step away and focus on something else when I notice myself getting anxious or frustrated. Sometimes, paying attention to our physical responses to what we’re encountering online can be a good signal that it’s time to take a break.
4. Delete the app. If a particular app is a source of a lot of negative information and endless scrolling, consider deleting the app for a short time and seeing how your habits change.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time on TikTok, and would open the app whenever I was bored. It became a time sink, and while I would occasionally find meaningful content or helpful information, for the most part, I was scrolling through videos that didn’t leave me with any lasting impression. Over the past year, my “For You Page” became overwhelmed by videos about anti-trans legislation that would leave me feeling anxious and frustrated. After deleting the app, I found that I didn’t miss it. I could no longer mindlessly open the app, so I naturally shifted to other activities instead.
5. Find one small way you can engage with your community. When the weight of negative news and messaging feels overwhelming, doing one small thing to connect with community or work toward positive change can challenge our feelings of hopelessness. This could mean taking small actions to combat climate change, creating a “pod” for mutual aid, writing letters to our representatives to oppose anti-trans legislation, or host a trans movie night/viewing party (online or in-person). Small actions create connection and positive change in ways that scrolling through headlines on social media can’t.
“It’s easy to see our phones as an extension of our own bodies. With just a few swipes, we’re able to get constant information regardless of where we are, what time it is, or how we’re feeling at the moment. The boundaries between the private and external are increasingly blurred, but just because we can engage with the world 24/7 doesn’t mean we should.” – FEI LU
Interrupting doomscrolling doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t stay informed, or that social media and news don’t have an important place in our lives as we connect with our communities and seek information on events and causes that are important to us. But the more we can shift to doing this mindfully, and with consideration for the impact our media consumption has on our bodies and minds, the more we can reduce the negative impacts of the doomscrolling spiral.