By Sagar S Jul. 18, 2020
Surrounded by an endless stream of bad news, “doomscrolling” is a very real phenomenon that’s affecting everyone who uses the internet these days. With no outdoor distractions and the need to keep up with the pandemic-related news, doomscrolling is causing mental health issues.
Over the last month, a new fad has been discovered — one that has even news websites asking you to stay away from news websites. This latest trend, apart from having some serious implications for our collective mental health, also happens to be one that’ll leave you yearning for the days when “tide pod challenge” meant “enough internet for the day”. It’s called Doomscrolling (Verb) — or Doomsurfing depending on how cool the sub-editor in charge of the article is — and was recently coined by the LA Times, in an article discussing words that the coronavirus pandemic has introduced into our lexicon.
Before that, it was apparently used by a Quartz reporter, who had been posting constant reminders to her followers to stop scrolling through depressing articles and go to bed instead. The reporter, in turn, says she saw it being used on Twitter as early as 2018.
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who coined the word. What matters is that doomscrolling is a very real phenomenon that’s affecting everyone who uses the internet these days — in ways that philosophers warned us about as early as the 1960s.
A personal battle with doomscrolling
Doomscrolling became a part of my life, when two weeks into the lockdown, I realised that I had replaced my two hours of sitting-in-traffic time with two additional hours of swearing-at-the-internet time.
With no outdoor distractions, the need to keep up with the news for work, and my occasional habit of hate-scrolling through right-wing forums and incel subreddits, I had turned into my home’s official town-crier. If I had a bell, I would’ve probably announced the incoming apocalypse to all my neighbours as well.
In America, people were spending up to 50 per cent more time in front of their screens.
A month in, I was refreshing the website that compiled coronavirus cases nearly 10 times a day, and reading out Twitter posts to my parents like they were bed-time stories. After at least 12 rants directed at no one in particular, they presumably started to believe that their son had been possessed by an Arnab Goswami-like demon. In retrospect I was showing all the signs of an Olympic-level doomscroller, but I didn’t know that yet…
In America, where the word is now gaining as much traction as Sachin Pilot’s rebellion is back home, this act of incessantly scrolling through depressing posts on social media was first identified when the lockdown began, and when, much like me, people were spending up to 50 per cent more time in front of their screens as well.
It was exacerbated with the death of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter protests, which gave Americans a lot to be outraged about. If you needed more proof that scrolling through thousands of depressing articles before going to bed was a scary trend, take a look at just a few of the headlines announcing its arrival.
After falling in the trap of doomscrolling through all these articles, it soon becomes apparent that they’re all arguing the same thing — the amount of time we spend on social media, especially reading about things that upset us, is neither beneficial, nor a habit that’s easy to let go of.
Why is doomscrolling so harmful for your mental health?
In India, of course, our problems are slightly different from those in America.
Here we’re constantly reading headlines related to police brutality, or about authorities’ indifferent treatment towards the more vulnerable sections of society, such as migrant labourers or Dalits…. Wait who are we kidding, the problems are pretty much identical.
In fact, throw in a longer and much harsher lockdown than America, and death threats directed at anyone trying to be funny online, and it turns out a majority of Indians are doomscrolling too, even if we didn’t come up with the catchy title first.
When we’re not moved to tears by these everyday headlines, meanwhile, we’re locked in a never-ending struggle to keep up with the latest episode of “What’s Happening Outside?” — season one of which has already proved to have more tragic moments than the average Naagin episode. (A sudden swarm of locusts… seriously?)
Then, lest we forget, there’s also a pandemic to panic about.
Coronavirus in India has offered headlines that announce how recovered patients are being treated like untouchables, instances of doctors being assaulted and/or thrown out of their homes, and news channels announcing that the fastest way out is Baba Ramdev’s Coronil. Clearly we have enough fodder to dooomscroll through for months.
Authors who’ve written about the phenomenon say this incessant scrolling stems from the need to find an answer to all these problems, or finding ways to bring change to the world. When we realise that we can’t, in fact, do either of these things, we end up getting “angry, anxious, depressed, unproductive and less connected with both our loved ones and ourselves”.
So clearly we need to deal with this latest scourge. The question is how we’re supposed to go about doing that when 2020 has clearly been a shitshow of a year.
It turns out a majority of Indians are doomscrolling too, even if we didn’t come up with the catchy title first.
How do you deal with a shitshow of a year aka 2020?
The alternatives offered by the aforementioned slew of articles range from the absurd — such as one suggestion in the NYT that we tie rubber bands to our hands and inflict small amounts of physical pain on ourselves everytime we’re caught doomscrolling — to the more extreme — such as the ancillary trend “Nosurf”, which discusses ways to swear off social media for good (not counting the Reddit community they’ve created for themselves, of course).
Articles on life hacking websites have suggested devoting a specific time of day to reading the news, after which it’s time to switch off. A podcast in Wired, which dissects the phenomenon in detail, meanwhile, offers a more humorous solution — “There’s only two ways to deal with doomscrolling — either throw your phone under the bed for some time every day, or throw yourself there for a few hours”.
But, obviously, none of these solutions are tenable, especially if you already sleep on a mattress on the floor, or depend on social media to keep in touch with your friends, or need to stay updated with the news for work.
In such situations, some articles have argued, it helps to focus on the things that provide a few hours of escape — such as going for frequent walks, or spending some time in front of other screens, like reading on the Kindle, or binge-watching Netflix shows.
Granted, watching a documentary on the latest unexpectedly handsome serial killer isn’t going to bring significant changes to your mental health overnight. But that’s 2020 for you — in between being in good shape physically, while dealing with the sudden lack of outdoor stimulation, we must now also worry about new problems like “digital wellness”.
Sagar has lived in Mumbai for most of his life. You can often find him complaining about potholes and local trains when he isn't out having a mediocre time.