It’s the same story every night. My plans to fall asleep are almost always delayed by an hour as I find myself glued to my phone screen. From one app to another, I scroll and scroll and scroll - through news of a worsening pandemic, a rising death toll, raging wildfires and mounting civil unrest.
The Netflix docudrama ‘The Social Dilemma’ showcases just how we get trapped in the maze - the dark reality of how social media influences our behaviour, locks us in its web, affects our mental health and monetises from it.
“The algorithm is actually trying to find a few rabbit holes that are very powerful, trying to find which rabbit hole is the closest to your interest. And then if you start watching one of those videos, then it will recommend it over and over again.”The Social Dilemma
The algorithm infiltrates our ways of being. Its effects go way beyond the virtual universe and alter our thoughts, actions and behaviour, affecting everything from our minds to our bodies. The health consequences of scrolling through the doom, therefore, are too real to overlook.
Doomscrolling and Doomsurfing: New Words for a Dark New Time
The coronavirus pandemic has birthed many terms. Many of these, like ‘FOGO’ and ‘social bubbles’, have been covered by FIT previously.
A very real phenomenon witnessed universally with COVID-19 is an obsessive usage of social media to browse through updates and information, which are more often than not, terrifying and upsetting. This hopelessness of all the content we consume online has lent itself to new words: doomscrolling and doomsurfing.
While the origins of these terms may date back to the late 2000s, the pandemic has given them a new life. For instance, Twitter’s daily use numbers have jumped 24 percent since the start of the outbreak, while Facebook’s numbers have risen by 27 percent.
Catching up to the trend, Merriam-Webster featured both terms on its ‘Words We’re Watching’ blog at the end of April, and Dictionary.com named doomscrolling one of its ‘New Words We Created Because of Coronavirus’.
“Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. Many people are finding themselves reading continuously bad news about COVID-19 without the ability to stop or step back.”Merriam-Webster Dictionary
In conversation with FIT, Ritika Aggarwal, Consultant Psychologist at Jaslok Hospital, explains that there are multiple reasons why we tend to consume more and more of bad news. “From an evolutionary point of view, there is a tendency to focus on the negative, simply because that is what keeps us safe. But when we look at such news, the algorithm feeds even more of such updates to us, so we are constantly bombarded by them.”
To top it all, there is just too much information out there and it is all so easily available. “We don’t know what’s fake and what’s real. We want to keep reading more to figure out the context and the authenticity of a random forwarded video clip. We’re constantly trying to know where it is coming from, what it is about, what’s the background.”
“It becomes very hard to make sense of all the information, and when you try and make sense, you end up reading a lot more about it.”Ritika Aggarwal
COVID-19 and the Compulsive Need to Stay Updated
The COVID-19 outbreak and all the life-altering developments it has led to, have made it almost impossible to stop ourselves from wanting to stay updated. “There is a constant fear of missing out on important information. What if an important guideline comes out? Or some new rules and precautions? How can I afford to not know?” are some questions constantly on our minds, Aggarwal says.
There is also a reduced opportunity to meet and discuss our concerns. Usually, we talk to friends about things that we find scary. But now, it’s just a spiral of forwarded messages from one confused friend to another, each trying to figure out what the content is about.
“You had someone as your sounding board, but now, social media is your only recourse.”
“Another challenge is the notification onslaught. We are constantly on our phones and laptops because it’s the only way to stay connected during the pandemic. Working, chatting, video calling - bombarded by notifications that pop up - which are primarily COVID related. Again, there is a tendency to check what it is. This keeps going on and on.”Ritika Aggarwal
Now, what does all of this lead to? A myriad of mental health disturbances.
Prakriti Poddar, a mental health expert and Managing Director at Poddar Foundation, tells us that every bit of information that we take into our brain affects our psyche, “Our environment is constantly shaping us. This is what neuroplasticity is about. When you consume so much negativity, you tend to believe that the world is negative, which of course, has a big influence on our moods.”
Aggarwal agrees. She starts off by explaining that everyone reacts differently to these despondent news updates, but one of the most common ways this affects us is by hampering our ability to first, fall asleep, and second, to maintain a good quality of sleep. With compromised rest, you are setting yourself up for more anxiety and stress, which in turn makes you more vulnerable to get affected by upsetting information.
“Of course, constantly reading or watching negativity can overtime build up and form a pattern of chronic stress, which manifests into physical issues like headaches and bodyaches that weren’t there before. We are also constantly thinking, worrying, panicking about our safety. This leads to fatigue, exhaustion, and burnout, hampering productivity, which again, causes feelings of guilt. It’s all inter-related.”Ritika Aggarwal Mehta
We are also repeatedly engaging with that content. Sad and distressing news angers and upsets us. “Why aren’t people wearing masks? Why is the government not caring? Why are people killing each other?”
“There’s extreme helplessness over the situation and a complete loss of control. ‘My wellbeing depends on x person wearing a mass.’ All of this can together trigger or cause depressive episodes,” Aggarwal says.
To Scroll or Not to Scroll Through the Doom?
Karen Ho, a reporter working for Quartz, has been tweeting daily about doomscrolling over the last few months, giving gentle reminders and offering alternative ways we can spend that time.
The solution to doomscrooling cannot be sacrificing your phone to the pyre and leading a life away from the internet. We need to stay updated and connected during a crisis that has relegated us to our homes. But to not mend our ways now would mean a worsening mental health pandemic - the results of which we are already witnessing around us.
Remember, that extra hour of Twitter scrolling will not change the times we are living in. It would, however, certainly cause damage to your mental health and stability - making this phase appear even more challenging than it already is.
Ritika Aggarwal provides some doable, practical tips we can all imbibe to change things for the better.
- To start off, we need to be aware that we are doomscrolling. It may be difficult for those who live alone, but being conscious of your usage pattern is an important first step. Is social media the first thing you look at when you wake up in the morning, for instance? Keep a log or diary of the time spent on the phone.
- Use credible sites for information and restrict the usage to maybe only twice a day for 15-20 minutes each. With time, you could bring it down further.
- Take longer breaks from social media. You can use timers on your phone or apps that lock the usage beyond a point.
- The need to stay updated and aware cannot be wished away. But conscious efforts can be made to find a replacement to the distressing news updates. Look for other material online. There are websites that showcase only positive news.
- Find other things to do, hobbies, exercises, maintaining a gratitude journal or jar.
- Engage in random acts of kindness. Become part of a volunteer group. Doing good to others will help you feel better, and looking at other members doing the same will give you hope.
“It will rekindle the feeling that it’s not all gloom and doom and there is still kindness in the world. And right now, we need this faith more than anything,” says Aggarwal.