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The Scrolling of Doom

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Photo by Rob Hampson on Unsplash

Doom scrolling (or, even better, doom surfing) is the act of endlessly dragging yourself through the news feed on your phone or computer while slowly being overwhelmed by the volume of negative, depressing, or terrifying information made available on the daily. It’s not exactly a new phenomenon, and you can see an earlier iteration of the concept in the “mean world syndrome” that arose in the 1970s. Despite how much better things are nowadays for your average human, we have more access to bad news than ever before, which does a very good job of making it seem like the world is thoroughly screwed and ready to implode any day.

Most of us have experienced this phenomenon to some degree, when we find ourselves staring at our phones, scrolling endlessly through a feed of pop science, celebrity gossip, and political discharge in search of something interesting – or barring that, something new. We are curious beasts, and services like Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok have been designed to provide a nearly endless feed of information, novelty, and outrage, algorithmically tuned to the individual user so as to maximize potential ad revenue. Doom scrolling, it turns out, is a viable business model.

If you’ve got a modern smartphone, odds are good you’ve got a news feed that just won’t go away. Even if it’s not tied to social media directly, your interests, search history, and browsing habits help your phone try desperately to figure out what it can get you to click on. Since humans are fairly used to invasive and annoying advertisements in this day and age, most of us are well aware that we’re being pandered to by a machine, but it’s hard to resist a big pile of information. In fact, our brains actually thirst for the sort of novelty that doom scrolling needs to survive.

Get that hit!

“…many social media apps have been called ‘dopamine scrollers’.”

The power of doom scrolling stems from the difference between dopamine and serotonin. Both of these chemicals are produced in our brain and, in the simplest of terms, cause “happy” feelings, but in very different ways. Normally, serotonin is associated with a deeper sense of happiness, focus and calm than dopamine, which is associated with productivity and rewards. While both chemicals are a perfectly normal part of our positive experiences, it’s a lot harder for a media company to exploit our serotonin response. Serotonin notably reduces the excitement factor of other neurotransmitters (like dopamine), which makes us less likely to get worked up over some new headline or drama. Simply put, dopamine gets a lot more clicks.

Due to the way they exploit human curiosity, many social media apps have been labeled “dopamine scrollers”. Without any particular goal in mind, many folks will drag themselves through what some estimate is enough internet to fill a 300 foot-tall document each and every day. Some studies indicate that the more upsetting or infuriating the news is, the greater chance that the consumer will dive in further, perpetuating a cycle of outrage and reward. The interior frontal gyrus, which is the part of our brain which moderates the flow of information and beliefs about reality, has been known to actively filter out negative content in excess of what is healthy for us, but our thumbs and phones circumvent this, and a lack of positive news can cause us to spiral out even further. Essentially, the volume of negative news we foist on ourselves can drown out our capacity to process good news at all.

Mindfulness is key.

Fortunately, people aren’t as helpless as all that. While anything that is closely tied to dopamine rewards will always have the potential to become addictive, there’s a growing awareness of just how dangerous doom scrolling can be, even in small doses. In the past five years, the amount of folks actively avoiding the news entirely, good or bad, has increased from 29% to 38%. That’s more than a third of people who simply refuse to play at all, which is a good sign that the corporate media will not be able to sustain their current business model.

Anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation have been associated with excessive doom scrolling. Those with any sort of cognitive distortion or PTSD may experience an increase in negative thinking and self-image as a result of doom scrolling, and some folks have even suffered panic attacks from exposure to excessive negative news. The best and easiest way to counterbalance doom scrolling is, quite simply, to intentionally focus on positive or uplifting information. Multiple studies have confirmed that forcing a positive bias on your own news consumption can increase your psychological health on a long-term and daily basis, and that those who choose to start their day with positive news have an 88% chance of reporting having had a “good day” six to eight hours later.

As crazy as things are getting out there lately, there’s no reason to let our brains make things worse. In some ways we should be proud that we doom scroll at all: for those of us thumbing endlessly through the gloom, our sensitivity and empathy for our fellow humans far eclipses our own sense of psychological preservation, and there’s something noble about that. But it’s also a burden born out of a sense of community far removed from the global scale. Our inability to affect the world’s miseries doesn’t change the fact that the world’s misery can deeply affect us. In fact, if we really want to be there for the people we can affect, and if we want our concern for the world to manifest in a tangible, meaningful, and local way, then we don’t need to shoulder the entire emotional weight of the planet’s misfortunes, even if it is right at our fingertips

Submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health Outreach Department

Galen Lastko, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.