Almost everyone does it – quick glances at Twitter, Instagram and newsfeeds throughout the day or right before sleeping. Reading the news is not exactly uplifting, even in the best of times. Unfortunately, what used to be a pleasant activity has turned into torment. The endless act of scrolling through miserable news updates is better known as “doom scrolling” and can be the cause of significant stress. Doom scrolling encourages thinking of worst-case scenarios. The short-term effect is that it produces feelings of anxiety and sadness. Over the long term, it might increase feelings of hopelessness towards a positive future, which can eventually lead to the increased risk of suicides and depression.
Scrolling for news updates has become a habit for many of us. It helps us feel more in control and socially connected; two things that have been diminished over the past two years. However, research shows that continuously reading negative and sad news can harm our mental health. So how much time do you spend doom scrolling? Are you caught in a social-media spiral? This article may help you to stop today.
Continuously following the news can become a bad habit surprisingly quickly. Habits are actions that we take routinely and automatically. A habit usually starts with a goal; for example, wanting to acquire information about the war in Ukraine. The action follows that will help us achieve that goal – clicking on a headline. If we do this frequently with the idea of achieving our goal, this action can become a habit that occurs even without the goal.
But what makes (bad) news rewarding? Research shows that consuming either positive or negative information can be rewarding. Negative information can be more beneficial than positive information, when preparing for a bad situation or providing different insights. Even various, seemingly negative, emotions can be rewarding, such as moral outrage over political news, for example. In addition, sharing an opinion or outrage on social media can be even more rewarding when we receive approval through “likes.”
Doom scrolling appeals directly to our most primitive instincts. The endless avalanche of negative messages creates a continuous sense of danger that leads to a high-stress level. Social media and TV influences feelings of anxiety when people are intensely exposed to images of violence. This leads to a cognitive bias where, over time, we start to see the world as more dangerous than it is, also known as the “mean world syndrome.”
How the algorithms of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter operate reinforces the feeling of stress even more. Their mechanisms are not only addictive, they also give more weight to negative messages because the viral nature of bad news is greater than that of positive news, and therefore negative news is financially more lucrative. What once started with the goal of “staying up to date” can turn into a habit that leaves us damaging our mental health.
How to Stop Doom Scrolling
So, what can we do about doom scrolling? The first step might be acknowledging that doom scrolling is a bad habit.
A practical, short answer would be to ban the use of smartphones or tablets in the bedroom. This would be a quick and easy solution to prevent doom scrolling before going to sleep. An alternative is to use a timer to avoid endless, energy-consuming scrolling. Instead, take a relaxing evening walk before going to sleep.
1. Find the Root
As with all bad habits, it is essential to find out why your habit exists. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, habits consist of three fundamental parts:
1. The Signal: the feeling, time, or location that triggers your habit
2. The Routine: the habit itself
3. The Reward: feeling satisfied by the habit
Uncovering these three is the first step in breaking your habit. Here’s how: When the habit sets in, try to figure out what the signal is and what the reward is. For best results, consistently write down the impetus/sign/signal, how you act upon them, and the rewards. For example, you tend to endlessly scroll through social media or news websites before sleeping. Your goal is to diminish the habit and improve the quality of your sleep. First, ask yourself the following questions:
– What triggers this habit?
– What need am I trying to fulfill?
Pay attention the next time you do it and write it down. Reflect upon your notes and see if you can discover a pattern. For example, if you are continuously scrolling through your phone (routine) right after you turn off your light (signal) or find that this habit gives you a sense of social connection (reward), you are onto something.
2. Replace the Habit
It is challenging for our brain to stop a habit completely. We instinctively want to complete the routine when our brain recognizes the signal and craves the reward. The trick is to teach your brain a new habit to replace the old one. To replace the habit of scrolling in bed, think of another activity that you can do when you get into bed that fulfills the desire for social interaction. For example, text or call a friend for a few minutes. Experiment with different routines to see what works best.
Once the new pattern is established, try to do it every time the signal and desire come up. This new habit targets the desire in your brain, which causes you to feel less physical or psychological resistance. The more frequently you practice it, the easier it becomes for your brain to replace this new habit with the old one.
3. Share your goal with others
Sharing our goals with others is highly effective. Research shows a 65% higher likelihood of achieving goals when they have been shared with others. Once we share a goal with someone else, we feel a greater obligation to fulfill the goal– not to have failed in the eyes of others.
Sharing goals with relatives or friends also leads to positive reinforcement. For example, suppose you tell a friend you want to spend less money. They will probably respond positively when they learn that you cooked dinner instead of going out. When this happens, your brain will internalize the compliments and pleasure you derive from the positive feedback. This external appraisal is motivating and makes it easier to stay on track!
4. Be kind to yourself
If you want to break a habit, it might not go perfectly well from the start. It might be tempting to scroll through your feed after a long day, despite your best efforts to go to bed early.
When this happens, be kind to yourself. If you self-deprecate, you may begin to associate your goal with negative emotions, hindering your progress and motivation. When you make a mistake, accept it, and pick up again. Additionally, making a mistake can be a productive step in breaking your habit – it will teach you something new that can influence your strategy.
Final Thoughts: Time to Stop Scrolling
Our brain is the most powerful organ in our body, and habits are not easily changed. So, to break bad habits, it is crucial to communicate with your brain in a way your brain will understand. With these hacks, you can break your habit of doom scrolling in no time. Eventually, this challenge might improve your life in more ways than one.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg