Reading through their social media feeds, Americans are likely to encounter anguished accounts of political turmoil, the coronavirus pandemic and continued fallout from cyberattacks, among other less than cheerful topics. And yet many can’t stop scrolling even more, perhaps hoping to distract themselves from thinking too hard about any one of these ongoing problems. The practice has earned a suitably apocalyptic nickname: doomscrolling.
In spring 2020, at the start of the global pandemic, Karen K. Ho, a global finance and economics reporter at the news site Quartz, began tweeting regular reminders to step away from the screen and do something that will actually make a doomscroller feel better—such as getting a drink of water, stretching or simply going to bed on time. “Those first couple of months I was basically talking out loud to myself,” she says. But her alerts drew attention from mainstream news outlets as well as fellow social media users, and in the year that followed, Ho’s Twitter following doubled to more than 44,000. “It was helping people feel less alone about a practice that they knew to be harmful, and me trying to offer a solution in a way that isn’t antagonistic or judgmental,” she explains. “I think the thing that was really surprising to people was how consistent I was because right now nothing’s really consistent. It’s all really chaotic. And they felt like somebody was looking out for them.”
Scientific American asked Ho what her project has taught her about why people doomscroll—and how they can stop. “What doomscrolling does is rob future you of the energy you need to really focus on important things,” she says, “and also to take better care of yourself.”
[An edited and condensed transcript of the interview follows.]
Doomscrolling makes us feel bad—so why do we do it?
It’s a combination of a couple of things. There is the very nature of the design of these applications. It’s the slot machine effect: The old way was, you would find something really funny, educational or informative, and the surprise was not knowing when that moment of dopamine or delight would hit you. Then there’s the compulsion for many people to be better informed about the chaotic situation that many of us are currently in as a result of the pandemic, the uncertainty regarding the economic recession, as well as the social justice situation affecting many minorities, women and vulnerable groups in the United States and around the world. Then I think, finally, it’s a very limited act of agency that people still have. You and I can’t go to our favorite restaurants, entertainment venues, gyms; we can’t interact with friends and loved ones because of physical distancing measures. People can’t do a lot of other normal behaviors, so they’re able to exercise their agency in this limited way, even if it’s detrimental to their ability to get a good night’s sleep or reduce their stress.
What can we do to prevent ourselves from endlessly scrolling?
I am a firm believer in using technology. New phones have ways for you to better focus: You can set manual time limits and hours in which you can’t open the apps themselves. I’ve also used apps like the Chrome extension “Stay Focused” a couple of times, where you can set various time limits for checking [social media] on your computer. I also just manually log out on my work computer and my cell phone; I try to increase the friction required to log in and read the Web site. Then there’s the emergency function: you literally just change the account password and give it to someone else so you can’t log in.
I use a lot of operations management and scientific methods to get myself to not look at my phone. If you’re going to pick up your phone more [at night], you have to put a book where your phone would normally be when you’re not at work, to read that before you go to bed. One of the best tips is, I watch a lot of TV and movies with subtitles—like in foreign languages. Because you can’t look at your phone, you have to read what’s on the screen to understand what’s going on. When it’s warmer, do things outside where you can’t look at your phone. (When spring comes, I’m going to bike so much!) Also, I find other tactile hobbies, like puzzles or Lego, to be really helpful. A lot of people have turned to writing cards and letters as an alternative activity during the pandemic. Some people like cooking, some people bake—it’s really about personal psychology. Like, if you’re fidgeting, it’s just you feeling anxious about something. That’s why you’re checking Twitter, so that you’re not thinking about the anxiety. Can you call a friend or a family member whom you haven’t spoken to in a while instead of looking at your phone?
It’s also about reminding myself constantly of things that sound really hokey and mindful. What I really remind myself of, repeatedly, is that when I die, Twitter means nothing. No one will be like, “I went viral a lot.” They’ll be like, “Did I have enough energy to do my job pretty well? Do the people we love know that we love them?” I think those are the things to really invest energy in.
Is there any way to snap yourself out of a scrolling session once you start?
Prevention is always better than [trying to stop] while you are in the middle of it. But if you’re in the middle of it—that’s why I send the reminders. I’m trying to meet people where they already are. There are several other Twitter accounts, like @tinycarebot, that are designed to catch you in the middle of doing it. And then there are alarms. I set alarms on my phone to be loud and obnoxious and say, “Hey, it’s late. You should probably be going to bed.” It’s just setting yourself up, even before you start—ask “What are the processes to improve your rates of success?” Even if you go down the wrong path, how can you course-correct?
What are some other things to know about doomscrolling?
The thing to remember is that there are limits to individual responsibility and reminders to take care. Fundamentally it is an irrational response to a reasonable emotion—like about how frustrating it is to see the vaccine rollout be screwed up or the lack of mask mandates. There are lots of medical people who follow me because of the reminders, a lot of science reporters and health reporters, and they’re doomscrolling because of repeated systemic failures by people in power. Doomscrolling existed for the Black community long before everybody else discovered it in 2020: when Black Americans are killed or hurt by police officers, there’s a hashtag for their name.
A lot of doomscrolling is that feeling of lack of direction and helplessness. Doing something, having a series of steps for people to do, I find reduces their stress. So that’s why you see me recommend drinking water or stretching—because unconsciously people let these things slide. When in doubt, I also find donating money makes you feel less helpless. It’s not fair that people should [only] think about all of these huge, big-picture problems; this small thing you can do is go to sleep right now, instead of staying up late.