The world has been rocked by chaos in 2020, and it’s negatively impacting those who use electronic devices.
Experts on mental health have seen rising increases of “doom scrolling,” the term for people who constantly look on the internet, social media and other sources to stay on top of news concerning COVID-19, hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, the California wildfires and the political unrest. This obsession with fearful information is responsible for mental and physical health issues.
UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain said doom scrolling originates from what she calls “the negativity bias of the brain.”
“We survived as a species because we were able to quickly search and scan for threats in the environment,” she said. “As a result, we tend to over-focus on negative experiences and search for bad news. We are primed to go to the negative. Now that we have more free time because so much has been shut down, there is a hyper focus on all the negative news right now. It feels like every day some bad news is arriving.”
Unlike decades ago when newspapers, radio and television were the main sources for information, iPhones, laptops and internet access on desktop computers provide new developments on a 24/7 basis. This has led to constant use of these devices as people want to know the latest threats that may influence their lives. Mirgain said the consequences can be damaging to mental and physical health.
“Many people feel like they are safer because they’ve read the current news of the day. But they are unaware of the toll it takes on our overall well-being,” she said. “When we are reading a deluge of negative news, especially during a pandemic and during a political election in a country that has a lot of strife, we experience increased fear, anxiety and stress. It can create increased rumination and cause sleep disturbance. We can feel more irritable and allow that to impact our relationships.”
So, how do we stop doom scrolling? Mirgain said one solution could be to do something positive to counterbalance the negativity.
“Think of three things you are grateful for to create some balance,” she said. “Don’t get isolated. If you find topics that are distressing to you, reach out and find some individuals to vent a little and express some of your fear and frustration. We find that when we are experiencing stress, and so many Americans are during this pandemic, if we have somebody safe and supportive around us, it lessens the impact of that stressor on our physiology.”
Mirgain also suggests addictive doom scrollers set a limit on how much they use their technology, and get outside, exercise and spend time with people while practicing social distancing.
“You may realize that even though this is a difficult moment in our nation, there is also more to life than the news,” she said.