The war in Ukraine and the recent pandemic years have affected and embrittled the psyche of us all. We have been literally bombarded by the media, and unfortunately it has become a common daily habit to compulsively go searching for “bad news” on our cell phones.
A few years ago, Canada’s McGill University did a unique experiment in which 100 university students were asked to check out domestic and foreign political news websites and choose the news they thought was the most interesting. Most of the respondents chose news that dealt with corruption or injustice. At the end of the experiment, the researchers concluded that this is the negativity effect, according to which negative topics have a greater effect both on a psychological and emotional level than other types of news.
This is ultimately why we mostly hear about bad news on t.v. So, and old human tendency that gets a new name in the Internet era: “doomscrolling“, which is the tendency to obsessively search for bad news online.
When doomscrolling occurs
This phenomenon does not refer to the desire and need to stay informed about what is happening in the world; rather, it concerns the habit of spending hours devouring negative news, causing us to practically lose sight of our daily priorities.
The neologism is clear: “Scrolling” of one’s social media or news outlets’ pages to look for anything that is catastrophic, that refers to destruction, death, and terror… “doom”.
Being informed about what is happening in the world is a good thing, indeed it is our duty as citizens of the world. Quite another thing is the pathological behavior of being addicted to bad news and spend most of our day seeking it out and reading it.
Why do we compulsively seek out bad news?
Most of the time we do it because we are worried—we are afraid for our safety, for our health, or for our future. Reading bad news is almost a way to expel fear. This was seen, for example, at the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic, but the same argument could be made for unpredictable and disastrous natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, as well as for traffic accidents or homicides.
The BBC tried to highlight why doomscrolling occurs: “Terror, when seen from the comfort of one’s own home, has a potentially calming effect.” Scrolling through catastrophic news in a quiet place can make one feel safe and fortunate.
The role of the media in this behavior and the mental health effects
Another cause of doomscrolling is a certain mechanism typical in journalism and the inner workings of digital platforms. “No news is good news!” as the saying goes.
Those who work in news broadcasting have an affinity for bad news and for situations that lend themselves to showmanship and sensationalism (which inevitably involve the reader), encouraging this type of addiction.
Overexposure to bad news can have effects, however, on people’s mental health and well-being. Being constantly exposed to a lot of negative news and information limits the human brain’s ability to give greater relevance to anything that is positive.
In essence, the application of the so-called “optimistic bias” would be limited. Efforts should therefore be made to “protect the brain from bad news,” so as not to experience increased feelings of anxiety and depression, as the Canadian Medical Association Journal rightly suggests.
According to the Harvard Business Review, as explained in a report entitled “Consuming Negative News Can Make You Less Effective at Work,” it only takes three minutes of bad news in the morning to have a 25+% higher chance of having a bad day.
Doomscrolling has also been shown to affect productivity at work, the level of concentration while studying, and the way one relates to family members—not to mention the physical side effects that happen when we can’t step away from the screen.
How can we draw boundaries for ourselves?
The remedies for compulsive consumption of bad news are, after all, the same ones that should foster a balanced relationship with technology and the same ones to be implemented when we go through negative situations in life.
- Limiting the time spent online, especially if not for work or study, is a good starting.
- The best help can come from reminders and other control devices throughout our daily routine.
- Meditate or, if one is a believer, pray to ask how something good can come from something painful. What can I do to bring help or show solidarity? What can I do in my own small way for someone who is suffering?
- Look for stories that nurture hope: like the missionary who saved 45 children from the bombs in Ukraine, who arrived in one of the hardest hit cities by bus…like the woman who learned more about the meaning of life when her husband was sick with Covid… like the foundation that was started in honor of a boy who died in a car accident that, today, does good for so many young people. There is a need to see, to seek out, and to bring out the good, not to be passively subjected to negativity.