Tom Keya on The rise of doomscrolling and how it’s harming our mental health

Tom Keya is a lawyer, business development consultant and analyst with a strong interest in improving mental health in the workplace.

Even if you’ve never used it in a sentence, chances are the term ‘doomscrolling’ is instantly familiar.

It’s what we do at night when we can’t sleep, and it’s what increasingly takes over in the daytime too. Doomscrolling describes the deliberate act of spending hours and hours absorbing often negative news on mobile devices.

Is doomscrolling really harming our mental health?
Smartphones and other mobile devices are ubiquitous. They’re part of everyday life for billions around the world, including developing countries. Many of the latter are skipping the interim stage of connecting the population with computers and moving straight to mobile penetration.

And while this opens up enormous possibilities and opportunities, it is also exacerbating the already disturbing global mental health crisis.

As of January 2021, statistics show that there were 4.66 billion unique mobile Internet users. This means that more than 90% of the entire global population of Internet users go online via a mobile device, whether a smartphone or tablet.

Ownership and usage of mobile devices will continue to increase as devices become ever cheaper and more accessible everywhere. Currently, mobile Internet traffic accounts for more than half of the total traffic online around the world. And in developing countries, which are mobile-first markets, these connections equate with an even bigger share.

The countries that show the highest Internet penetration rate in the world are Sweden, Denmark and the UAE. Unsurprisingly, the country recording the least is North Korea. In terms of Internet users, China leads the way with more than 854 million followed by India with 560 million. And when we consider that there are still millions of people not online, it’s clear to see just how much this will increase in future.

People with existing mental health issues are more likely to doomscroll

These statistics prove just how many people around the world are more than likely doomscrolling as part of their everyday life. The act of continually searching out news (usually negative) online
has increased even further since the pandemic started.

Disturbingly, it’s more common with people who already report suffering from some kind of mental health condition, such as depression and anxiety. This creates a vicious circle that can be extremely difficult for people to break. People who doomscroll are less likely to sleep properly and more likely to suffer from increasingly severe mental health problems.

So common is doomscrolling since COVID-19 arrived that it even became of the Oxford dictionary’s words of the year for 2020. Of course, it existed before, but with a global pandemic, many more people felt compelled to find information online to try and soothe their anxiety.

The pandemic is increasing the likelihood of doomscrolling for many people

According to the Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare project from the World Economic Forum (WEF), COVID-19 has boosted our mobile phone use exponentially. Project lead Kelly McCain says that people now spend an average of just over four hours every day on their smartphones.

More time spent on your phone isn’t scientifically linked to increased mental health problems, according to a 2020 study. However, having unlimited access to information about the pandemic, problems in other countries, social inequality and every other negative aspect of daily news is clearly an issue for many people.

The habit of doomscrolling is, it seems, more common among people who already suffer from some kind of mental health issue. A study that included 6,000 people in Germany last year discovered a link between COVID-19 related media exposure and the severity of anxiety, fear linked to a specific topic and depression. However, the causal relationship remains unclear.

Wanting information is a very basic human trait
It’s natural for people to want to understand the situation – whatever that situation is. In fact, we’re hardwired to constantly look for clarity and information. This is why we’ve survived for so long. Our natural curiosity can be constantly piqued and soothed by looking for news on our most accessible mobile device.

The problem is, there is an enormous amount of negative, scary and bad news out there. People feel compelled to follow politics and the pandemic in an almost continuous way, and this can feel claustrophobic and never ending.

Furthermore, the way that information is presented on social media and websites optimised for mobile devices is designed to grab your attention. From curated news feeds to clickbait headlines, there is so much information delivered directly into our curious gaze that it can be almost impossible to resist – even if it makes us feel worse.

Doomscrolling was a thing before the pandemic, particularly among people who already had a tendency towards anxiety and depression. Confirmation bias naturally plays a part here – we all give more focus to that which confirms our already held beliefs. And that’s incredibly simple to access on social media.

So, for people already dealing with depression, the plethora of confirmation out there will make it worse. And during the pandemic, the way in which we consume information changed again with most people glued to their devices every step of the way.

Change your routine and get out of the habit of doomscrolling

We all want to be informed and understand our surroundings and what’s happening in the world. Arguably, there has never been a more important time to be fully on top of the news cycle. But we can’t – and shouldn’t – constantly be updating ourselves in this way.

The best way to deal with this is to set aside half an hour a day, or a couple of separate periods of time, and give yourself permission to look as much as you like. And then put the smartphone down. Decide for yourself when this works best for you, but I’d advise not scrolling before you try to go to sleep.

To combat anxiety and generally function well, we all need good quality, restful sleep. If you find that your routine to ‘unwind’ involves scrolling through the news on your iPhone just before bed, try to change this. It’s very easy to fall into this habit, and many of us do. But by consciously choosing a different pre-sleep routine, you could find yourself feeling a lot better.

The reality is we live in a time that gives us unprecedented access to information – true and false, biased and objective, bad and good – and we need to learn how to manage our lives without becoming overwhelmed.

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