The perils of ‘doomscrolling’ when the world is on fire

hand raised over iphone preparing to start doomscrolling
As our news consumption habits continue to evolve around the use of social media, new pressures arise over how to respond to what we see. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

For anyone who is even moderately active on social media in 2021, confronting world chaos is part of the daily routine—so much so that we’ve coined phrases to help capture the feeling of being in the digital midst of so much catastrophe: “doomscrolling.”

Whether it’s climate change and the accelerating natural disasters brought on by warmer temperatures, the events in Afghanistan, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the intensely polarized nature of U.S. politics, crises near and far have been brought into ever-sharper focus thanks to technological changes that have allowed for the instantaneous transmission of news and information to our smartphones and other electronic devices.

As our news consumption habits continue to evolve around the use of social media, new pressures arise over how to respond to what we see; how we—as digital witnesses, global citizens, and human beings—should act in the face of injustices and crises far and wide.

How to cope with the onslaught? Northeastern experts say it’s a difficult balancing act, especially when the glut of information doesn’t necessarily make us more insightful, and when it’s easy to become numb to injustices at home and in far-flung parts of the world. But it’s also an unprecedentedly connected digital universe, a fact that calls upon those of us with privilege and means to help shoulder more of humanity’s burdens, taking them into our lives in order to help improve conditions for everyone, the experts say.

‘Take breaks, but don’t disengage’

“There are certainly really important issues of the day that we need to be at least reasonably informed about,” says Karen Quigley, professor of psychology at Northeastern. “The question is about becoming the person who is acting to make that change in the world.”

The moral imperative to act—becoming involved in various political or social causes, for example, or donating money to said causes or charitable organizations—may be felt more intensely and more widely among millennials and those who are growing up seeing the kinds of technological changes that are helping to render the world’s ills with catastrophic clarity, says Quigley, who studies, among other things, how emotional experiences impact behavior, cognition, and health.

As we use social media to become more engaged with other people who may live in faraway places, our sense of community grows—and so, inevitably, does our sense of responsibility and stewardship, Quigley says.

But there are downsides to such high degrees of engagement with the world as seen through, for example, Twitter—a platform Quigley says can sometimes promote “soundbite knowledge.” On top of being potentially harmful to our mental health, too much social media social consumption can stifle the development of expertise, which Quigley says is one of the primary ways we can affect change.

In other words, we may sometimes feel like scrolling through a flurry of tweets and posts is the equivalent of gaining knowledge on a subject or topic, but it’s not.

“It’s not really knowledge, it’s information,” Quigley says.

Quigley argues that individuals should instead focus their efforts on becoming deeply knowledgeable in one subject area, even if it isn’t directly related to the most pressing issues facing their community, or the world more broadly.

Coupling our own expertise with support for others, who may be working more directly with those causes, is one optimal way to contribute, Quigley says. After all, she says, that’s what communities are for.

“One thing you should do is become an expert in the thing you’re passionate about,” Quigley says. “Make that the thing that you act on and spend your time doing. Your friends and your family are going to take on those other issues.”

Quigley also stresses the importance of taking news breaks throughout the day, or setting blocks of time aside devoted to so-called doomscrolling, if it’s something you find yourself doing often.

“Take breaks, but don’t disengage,” she says.

Social media as ‘a pointillist painting’

There have been gradual changes to the way news is packaged, delivered, and consumed over the last several decades, says John Wihbey, associate professor of journalism and media innovation at Northeastern. But such changes have had significant impacts on how readers process news information.

“It’s a qualitatively different experience now—navigating news—than people would have had even a generation ago,” Wihbey says. “Now what we get are very fragmented images, impressions, opinions, and anecdotes from a wide variety of sources around the world.”

When encountering a news story, Wihbey recommends “lateral reading,” or checking other sources to see if the “facts and narratives are being understood in the same ways.”

“Social media is a bit of a pointillist painting,” Wihbey says. “It can take a lot of work to orient yourself to what’s important.”

Wihbey says there are new burdens facing readers today to be informed, born simply out of the “struggle to make meaning” of the social media-driven news jigsaw puzzle, one in which potentially important information is haphazardly shuffled by algorithms, and where “complete narratives are often scattered.” This can make it hard to take decisive moral action, Wihbey says.

“There’s a burden on our moral imagination, so, not just ‘What does it mean,’ but also ‘How do I relate,’ and ‘What should my political and moral stance be towards this,’” Wihbey says.

But it isn’t exactly clear how we should act, says Jacob Stump, assistant teaching professor of philosophy at Northeastern. Stump suggests that social media can cause us to become overexposed to crises, or acts of injustice, inducing emotions that may not necessarily lead to the best course of action.

On the other hand, inaction would be unproductive as well. Stump says it can be double-binding: The world is enormously complicated, and we just so happen to be living in a social moment when it’s possible for us to be very aware of its complexity.

Stump warns that the unmitigated stream of information coming at us over social media can cause us to become “so emotionally overwhelmed” that we may fall into despair, impairing our ability “to respond to those concerns in our immediate environment that require our attention.”

“I think we need to recognize that as a loss,” Stump says.

The answer may lie in further reflection.

“We can do some reflection, and maybe I find myself to be outraged at this injustice happening elsewhere in the world—but shouldn’t I be just as outraged at the injustices happening in my neighborhood or in my city?” Stump says. “And if I’m not, what does that tell me about myself?”

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