When I was young, everyone watched Walter Cronkite on the news at 6:00, and hence everyone saw the same set of news items each day. Reporting seemed more factual, less politically skewed, and with fewer doomsday predictions designed to hold our attention.

Today, broadcast news invariably begins with the words “Breaking News!” and a video of something on fire or dying or both.

Whither Uncle Walter. To make matters worse, most Americans now get their news from social media. Facebook and TikTok and all news feeds carefully monitor our interests. If we pause to read a news item or watch a video, they serve more of the same, leading us slowly from curiosity to indignancy to rage.

The psychology behind doomscrolling

We are victims of our caveman minds. A caveman gave only passing attention to a nice vista, but maintained a sharp and sustained focus on a lurking saber-toothed tiger. So as we now peruse our news feeds, we naturally scroll past the “Unemployment at record low” item and pause to stare unblinking at all the “Sudden Death Expected at Any Moment” items. Facebook notes this, and serves more “Sudden Death” items to us the next day, appending ads for tornado shelters, security cameras, and bear spray.

Add COVID to the mix, with its gifts of isolation, inactivity, and WAY more time to stare at phones, and the result is the phenomenon of “Doomscrolling.”  In case you are unfamiliar with the term, Doomscrolling is the habit of devoting excessive screen time to the absorption of negative news items.

Though it is invariably anxiety provoking and ultimately depressing, it has an addictive quality: people tend to repeat the pattern daily despite a vague awareness that it is not healthy.

It is peculiar. Most things that are addicting are pleasurable rather than enjoyable, i.e. immediately gratifying rather than producing long-term satisfaction. For example, consider these commonplace addictions:

  • “Open another bottle!... Oh, my aching head, and where are my shoes?”
  • “This chocolate is fantastic!… My tummy hurts, and I was trying to lose weight.”
  • “Sex with strangers is so exciting!... Oh, what am I going to tell my spouse?”
  • “If I stay a little later, I can finish off this work… What? She wants a divorce?”
  • “I’m sure to hit the jackpot on this next pull… and now I’m even deeper in debt.”

In apparent contrast, doomscrolling isn’t fun while you are doing it, and isn’t any fun later, either.

Some psychologists believe that it begins as an escape from a dreaded task (the dishes, the lawn, calling your sister to apologize) and then becomes a vicious cycle. You scroll down further and further in vain hope that the news will get better, that there is a happy ending somewhere near the end. But alas, Facebook knows what will keep your attention….and it is relentless.

What do to instead of Doomscrolling

I speak from experience: only lately have I been able to pull my head out of my…. phone.

I started by substituting Wordle, Wordscapes, and Doodle Jump for doomscrolling at dawn. I'm devoting more time toward building skills and less time toward watching videos of things exploding. I’m making a habit of reminding myself that modern Americans live better than kings did 200 years ago. (Air conditioning! Flush toilets! Air travel! Antibiotics! A life expectancy above 35!) And I pay very close attention to the “America Strong” items at the end of the ABC newscast in the evenings.

So, that is what worked for me. Perhaps it will work for your clients, or yourself. David isn’t Uncle Walter…but he is a close second.

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