Doomscrolling can become a compulsive habit and affects our mental and physical health, here’s why it’s bad for us

The phrase “doomscrolling” is popping up all over the internet – but what does it actually mean? It’s pretty self-explanatory. Doomscrolling refers to excessively scrolling through bad news on social media which is considered to be problematic news consumption. It comes as no surprise that doomscrolling, or doomsurfing as it is sometimes referred to, is bad for our mental health.

A study published in the journal Health Communication sheds light on the gloomy topic.

Researchers looked at extant research on problematic behaviours to identify the dimensions of problematic news consumption. Then, using survey data from a national sample of U.S. adults, examined the following:

  • The factor structure of a problematic news consumption measure
  • The existence of latent classes derived from the expected factors
  • Differences in mental and physical health across the emerging classes

The research demonstrates how the obsessive or compulsive urge to scroll through negative news has negative mental and physical health outcomes.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad news to “doomscroll” through, from a global pandemic to war in Ukraine, and floods in Pakistan, there is a neverending supply of depressing stories to fixate on. And it is that fixation or hyperfocus on the bad news that can take its toll on people, both mentally and physically.

Adult white man sat on step leaning over phone as he scrolls through news.
© Antonio Guillem

16.5% of people consume news in a severely problematic way

The authors of the study found that 16.5% of about 1,100 people surveyed showed signs of “severely problematic” news consumption which lead them to experience greater levels of stress, anxiety and poor health.

Regardless of demographics, personality traits, and overall news use, those who consume bad news in a problematic way i.e. doomscrolling have poorer well-being, both mentally and physically, than those who consume less bad news.

A constant state of high alert

In the last few years, the news has been particularly bleak. A global pandemic, an attempted insurrection at a presidential election, mass shootings, horrifying wildfires, and war in Ukraine to name just a few…

Consuming all of this bad news in real-time, and with constant access to it, forces us to be in a constant state of high alert, says research.

Sucked into a vicious cycle of consuming bad news

People who doomscroll can get sucked into a vicious cycle. Instead of tuning out, they become hooked and get further drawn in. It can lead to obsessive behaviours such as constantly checking for updates on news stories as a way of alleviating emotional distress.

Doomscrollers believe that they need to check the news because it will make them feel better. In fact, obsessively searching for updates on stories has the opposite effect and interferes with people’s day-to-day lives, say study authors.

It is important to stay informed on developments in the world, but authors urge people to not become too obsessed with events that are outside of their control because of the associated health risks.

Person holding phone with news apps open. TV is visible in background
© Grigoroiu Eduard

Doomscrollers and “news junkies” are not the same

Of course, keeping up to date with current affairs is not a bad thing. It is important that people understand the difference between being a doomscroller and a news junkie.

A news junkie is a term that refers to someone who is “extremely interested in the news and/or consuming an excessive amount of news”. But this behaviour is not generally considered to be problematic.

It is not the amount of news consumed that is problematic, rather it is the nature in which it is consumed

The authors of the study put forward the argument that it is not the amount of news consumed that is problematic, rather it is the nature in which it is consumed.

Doomscrolling makes the world seem like a “dark and dangerous place”

Associate Prof Bryan McLaughlin, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Texas Tech University, said the 24-hour-news cycle could bring about a “constant state of high alert” in some people, making the world seem like a “dark and dangerous place”.

He added: “For these individuals, a vicious cycle can develop in which, rather than tuning out, they become drawn further in, obsessing over the news and checking for updates around the clock to alleviate their emotional distress.

“But it doesn’t help, and the more they check the news, the more it begins to interfere with other aspects of their lives.”

Of those involved in the survey, 27.3% reported “moderately problematic” levels of news consumption, 27.5% were minimally impacted and 28.7% experienced no problems.

People struggle to detach themselves from the news that they are reading

Some individuals have the ability to consume extremely depressing news without any tangible psychological effects. Others are unable to do this and demonstrate compulsive obsessive behaviour with media. In some extreme cases, they are unable to detach themselves and their own lives from the bad news they’re reading.

The types of respondents considered doomscrollers scored high on five problematic news consumption dimensions listed by the researchers:

  1. Becoming absorbed in news content
  2. Being preoccupied with thoughts about the news
  3. Attempting to reduce anxiety by consuming more news
  4. Finding it difficult to avoid the news
  5. Having news consumption interfere in their daily life

“Significantly more likely” to experience poor mental and physical health

The research team also concluded that those who scored higher for problematic news consumption were “significantly more likely” to experience poor mental and physical health.

What is the link between excessive media consumption and poor health?

Of respondents considered to have severe consumption levels, 74% reported experiencing mental health problems and 61% reported physical problems compared to 8% and 6.1% of all other study participants.

“We did anticipate that a sizeable portion of our sample would show signs of problematic news consumption. However, we were surprised to find that 17% of study participants suffer from the most severe level,” McLaughlin commented.

This is certainly concerning and suggests the problem may be more widespread than we expected

“This is certainly concerning and suggests the problem may be more widespread than we expected. A lot of people appear to be experiencing significant amounts of anxiety and stress due to their news consumption habits.”

What was the impact of COVID-19 on doomscrollers?

Dr Kate Mannell, a media studies researcher at Deakin University in the Australian state of Victoria, discusses the impact of the pandemic on mental health and doomscrolling.

COVID-19 made the public “more inclined” to obsessively scroll through their phones

She believes that COVID-19 made the public “more inclined” to obsessively scroll through their phones and engage with bad news because of the sheer amount of depressing stories that emerged at a time when many individuals had more free time.

Mannell studied the impact of news consumption on Victorians affected by strict Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and discovered that making an effort to partially avoid news actually benefitted respondents and increased their overall wellbeing. These respondents were more likely to be more relaxed at home.

Mannell explains: “People weren’t avoiding it completely, but were taking conscious steps to limit their news consumption after realising [it] had become unhealthy,

“They found strategic ways of staying informed … doing one longer form piece of news engagement or going directly to public health.”

What advice can researchers offer doomscrollers?

Mannell suggests that news addicts should acknowledge the detrimental impact news can have on their health as opposed to switching off all media entirely.

“We’re in an unstable world. We’re going to have increasing climate catastrophes – crisis contexts in place around Covid are going to become more prevalent.

“Becoming stressed and anxious is a legitimate natural reaction to the world around you, but it’s important … people are able to gauge when [news consumption] becomes problematic,” Mannell concludes.



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