What Is Doomscrolling?

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Addiction usually involves something that makes us feel good—at least temporarily. But can we be addicted to something that might make us feel bad, too? The surprising answer might just be yes.

I’m talking about doomscrolling, also sometimes called doomsurfing. In a nutshell, this word describes a habit of scrolling through social media, news sites and various content feeds looking for bad news. And though the term has been around since at least 2018, this year has propelled it into our popular lexicon. Awful news has been everywhere in 2020. From the pandemic to civil unrest, from election chaos to seemingly constant natural disasters like hurricanes and forest fires, it seems like bad news has been just about the only kind there is this year.

You’d think we would want a break from all that bad news. Paradoxically, though, some of us can find ourselves obsessively surfing and scrolling our way through it. Back in March, The New York Times contributor Kevin Roose wrote, “I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of doomsurfing recently—falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with coronavirus content, agitating myself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep. Maybe you have, too.”

So why do we do it?

There are a number of reasons. One dark psychological motivation has to do with what Edgar Allen Poe once termed “the spirit of perverseness.” In other words, even though things are bad, we want to see for ourselves just how bad they are. It’s not far removed from the phenomenon of “rubbernecking” when we drive past an accident—that impulse to witness the carnage for ourselves.

But it goes deeper than just a grim impulse. We’re also trying to make sense of what’s happening, and to perhaps find hope and meaning amid patterns of life that have been so badly disrupted for all of us. Normalcy and stability have been disrupted, and we long for a return to a more predictable, less restrictive status quo. Perhaps there’s been a breakthrough. Perhaps there’s new information that to help us process the various “narratives” about the state of reality, circa 2020. Maybe news of vaccine for the coronavirus, for instance, hints at a bit flicker of light at the end of this dark tunnel. And so we scroll on.

On still another level, doomscrolling is just another expression of our ever-growing appetite for screen-based content and interaction. Even before the pandemic and 2020’s other difficult news stories, many of us were already spending hours a day swiping through social media feeds and news stories. Doomscrolling simply represents a more sobering version of a habit that was already well entrenched for many of us.

Whatever the specific impulses may be that lead to doomscrolling, the important question we need to ask is this: What do we do about it?

As with tech addiction in general, the first step involves recognizing that it’s a problem and re-establishing limits and boundaries. It can begin with a decision (perhaps involving accountability with a family member or friend) not to reach for that phone in moments we’ve grown accustomed to doing so—when we first get up, at a stoplight (guilty!), for an hour before we go to bed, etc.

Second, doomscrolling can yield ever-greater fear and anxiety because it reinforces our sense that life is slipping out of control in tragic ways for so many of us. As Christians, however, we’re invited into a relationship with the God who tells us some 365 times in Scripture, “Do not be afraid.” So how do we counter those fears? By talking to God about them honestly, paired with asking Him to help us nourish trust instead of fear. The simplest way to move toward that goal is, again, to put our phones down and exchange them for time in Scripture, which enlivens our hearts by aligning them with God’s truth.

Finally, as we move toward what may be a strange Thanksgiving holiday for many of us, take a moment to give thanks, to intentionally cultivate a heart of gratitude. As we step back from the edge of the bad-news cliff, and as we remember God’s faithfulness and the good things He’s given us, it renews our spiritual equilibrium. We will always deal with bad news, whether it comes in trickles or tsunamis like we’ve seen this year. And there will always be a temptation to fixate upon it. Thankfully, Jesus invites us to live into a life of abundance, not anxiety, as we lift our eyes away from all that bad news and focus on Him instead.

Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.