The cartoon, by Tommy Siegel, illustrates what has become a reality for many people during the pandemic. Although my bed was flame-free, I, too, was lying there, eyes wide, staring at my screen — despite my better judgment and good intentions.
I’m aware that late-night screen time impedes restful sleep and mindless morning scrolling can start the day on a negative note. I’d already implemented numerous mental health and sleep strategies: turned off notifications, removed most social media apps from my phone, tried various meditation practices, limited caffeine to early morning hours and more. Yet, since the early days of the pandemic, I’ve frequently caught myself bingeing on bad news.
If you’ve encountered the same, here’s some encouraging news: “You’re not at fault for doom-scrolling,” Anne McLaughlin, a human factors psychologist and professor at North Carolina State University, writes via email. According to McLaughlin and health-care, addiction and technology experts I’ve spoken with, it’s not a penchant for pain or a deficit of self-discipline that causes people to repeatedly tumble down the rabbit hole; it’s the tangled relationship of human survival instincts and technological design amplified by the pandemic. And we can get a handle on it if we understand how it works.
Why we're caught in the cycle
“It might seem counterintuitive that we are hooked by bad news,” Ned Presnall, a licensed clinical social worker and director of Plan Your Recovery (an addiction treatment center), writes via email. “But the human brain has evolved to address stimuli hierarchically — to deal first with those things that have the highest degree of survival salience.”
Sun Joo Ahn, director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab at the University of Georgia (where her research focuses on how virtual experiences affect behavior in the physical world), says people probably aren’t searching for disheartening news, as the term “doom-scrolling” implies; they’re simply info-gathering. “Seeking out information is something we tend to do even during normal circumstances in order to make informed decisions,” she says. “Unfortunately, a lot of information is negative these days, and we’re motivated to pay more attention to negative news — and remember it longer — because it has a direct linkage to our survival.”
Additionally, according to Presnall, content is increasingly designed to “trigger hyperarousal by playing on our more primitive emotions — fear and outrage,” which activates the survival centers of our brain. So, Ahn explains, we continue looking for answers by clicking on recommended content rather than searching separately for every piece of information. And in doing so, we “reinforce the [artificial intelligence or algorithm behind the platform] to think that this is the type of news we want” — unintentionally attracting more of the same.
In fact, the continued clicking is part of the plan. “Technology has become more addictive (by design),” Presnall writes. The new content continuously loading at the bottom of the screen, a Web design technique known as infinite scroll, “eliminates those brief moments when we might turn to another activity.”
McLaughlin explains that the infinite scroll design also exploits the psychological phenomenon known as automaticity. “We all have automatic behaviors, from tying our shoes to driving home from work. If you’ve ever meant to stop at the grocery store, but then suddenly found yourself in your driveway instead, it’s because the ‘automatic’ drive home took over your intent to get groceries. You didn’t even notice it happening,” she writes. “That’s the definition of automatic behavior. It’s not accessible to your conscious mind, and therefore when you’re in it, it’s almost impossible to stop.” In a similar way, “doom-scrolling is an automatic behavior, where you lose the sense of time and you’re not consciously choosing to continue.”
This is further complicated by another element of app design: rewards. “As you scroll, occasionally you get rewarded,” McLaughlin writes. “That reward could be a cute photo of a baby or a puppy, but even emotions like outrage can feel like a reward. A continuous social media feed is designed to give you just enough of those rewards to keep you there.”
Doom-scrolling illustrates how technology has been designed to work against us, McLaughlin says, but understanding our basic cognitive limits can help us design technology that better supports us. For example, making infinite scrolling an option that has to be turned on — rather than the default — would be better for users.
Hacking technology to stop
“There is a lot of information out there, and how that information is being curated to you can be very different,” Ahn says. “If you know what these platforms are offering to you and how the recommendation system works on the back end, then you can be a lot more critical and actively search for information.”
You don’t need to break up with technology altogether to break free from the doom-scrolling cycle; in fact, you can harness the positive powers of technology to combat it. The key is to take a more conscious, active role in your consumption. A simple trick recommended by psychiatrist Nina Vasan, founder and executive director of Brainstorm: the Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation at Stanford School of Medicine, can make an immediate impact: Change your screen display to grayscale to reduce the visual allure.
Other steps: Retrain algorithms by clicking on content that covers a variety of topics you’re interested in. Choose your news from a range of sources. Install an app that limits screen time (or turn on the feature if it already exists in your settings). Or set a timer or other “external cue,” as McLaughlin recommends, “to bring you out of the automatic state”; Vasan suggests you set the alarm to a favorite song.
“Break the cycle with positivity,” Vasan writes. Prepare an arsenal of options that are easy to access from your phone or computer: “Bookmark some websites or social media accounts that make you feel good, and when you notice yourself going down the doom-scrolling path, open up the positive page or account.” She also suggests positioning alternate healthy apps, such as meditation and workout apps (or my favorite, Duolingo), next to social media apps on your phone so you can replace a potential doom-scroll session with something more fulfilling. “Just trying to stop is hard, but adding in something positive can increase the likelihood of success,” Vasan writes.
And, of course, although technology allows you to stay informed and keep connected with loved ones — which is important for health and wellness, particularly given the physical distance created by the pandemic — logging off completely from time to time is also an option.
“We can create physical separation from our devices by, for example, leaving our phones at home when we go for a walk or run an errand or spend time with a friend,” Presnall writes. “When we play, joke and laugh, our brain gets a feedback message that all is well. . . . If we want to stay mentally healthy, we need to take time to play and to relish the good things in life.”
Fitzgerald is a writer and travel specialist based in Honolulu. Her website is thisissunny.com.