Children can’t go back to school. Your favourite restaurant and barbershop are still closed. People are losing their jobs. Everything is awful. The world as we remember it has ended. Next thing you know, it’s 9 am. You haven’t climbed out of your pit of despair yet to even shower. You repeat this masochistic exercise during your lunch break — and again while getting ready for bed.
This experience of sinking into emotional quicksand while bingeing on doom-and-gloom news is so common that there’s now internet lingo for it: “doomscrolling.” Exacerbating this behaviour, shelter-in-place orders leave us with little to do than look at our screens; by some measures, our screen time has jumped at least 50 per cent. We’re not alone, exactly, with so many of us going through this.
Yet doomscrolling, combined with screen addiction, could take a significant toll on our mental and physical well-being, according to health experts. The activity can make us angry, anxious, depressed, unproductive and less connected with our loved ones and ourselves.
“It’s the path of least resistance to keep consuming passively through social media,” said Dr Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general who has written extensively about the impact of loneliness on personal health. “You have to pull yourself out of that. It’s not just disengaging but also dealing with the impact that has on your mind-set, which can often last for hours.”
Fret not: We aren’t doomed just yet, and there are approaches to modifying our behaviour. We can create structure in our lives, for one, and practice meditation techniques, for another. Here’s what health and wellness experts say: People are, by nature, information consumers, and the news is like digital candy being dispensed 24 hours a day. To resist information bingeing, we can create a plan to control how much we consume, similar to how people can create a dieting plan to lose weight, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist. Step One is to acknowledge the burden that doomscrolling creates for our health, Dr Gazzaley said. “You have to realise you don’t want to live your life in a hamster wheel of complete news consumption,” he said. “It’ll take a toll on you in the way that stops becoming valuable, and being an informed person is a diminishing return.” Step Two is to create a realistic plan that you can stick with and repeat until it forms a habit.
Creating a schedule is an effective approach. Start by making calendar appointments for everything from mundane activities, like taking a walk outside, to business matters, like video-conferencing meetings. Set aside certain times of the day to read the news, if you must — and if it helps, set a 10-minute timer to remind you to stop scrolling. Another trick is to wear a rubber band around your hand while you are reading the news, and when you believe you are succumbing to doomscrolling, snap the rubber band against your wrist, Dr Murthy said.
It’s also important to rethink breaks. Before the pandemic, one of our typical lunch breaks involved browsing Facebook. With nowhere to go out for lunch under shelter-in-place orders, browsing the web has become the default work break, an obvious trap that could lead to doomscrolling. Instead of staying glued to a screen, take a stroll around the block, hop on the exercise bike, prepare your favourite snack. And yes, set calendar appointments even for your breaks, Dr Gazzaley said.
Brian X Chen is the lead consumer technology writer for NYT© 2020
The New York Times