2020. It’s 2 am. Instead of being sound asleep because I have an 8am meeting the next day (at home, of course), I’ve spent the last few hours scrolling endlessly for the latest anecdotal COVID-19 updates on the COVID-19 Megathread of r/Melbourne, a subreddit dedicated to Melburnians. Many people are currently online on the same subreddit.
This collective phenomenon, also known as “doomscrolling,” has been popularised since the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Doomscrolling, which is both one of Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster’s year-defining words, describes the activity of compulsively scrolling and refreshing the Internet feed on your phone for upsetting news.
The word has another variation, “doomsurfing,” which frees users from the limit of their six-inch phone screen into the vast sea of multiple screen sizes.
Nevertheless, the word “doomscrolling” itself not only describes the activity but also evokes a vivid scenario of a socially distanced smartphone user helplessly and absentmindedly seeking out saddening, disheartening, depressing news, unable to step back.
Doomscrolling, predictably, has detrimental effects on our mental wellbeing, researchers Apurvakuma Pandya and Pragya Lodha wrote in a review for Fronters in Human Dynamics.
Reports on excessive screen time during COVID-19 shows that impulsive, compulsive, and unregulated use of digital devices can lead to increased levels of anxiety, sad mood, uncertainty, and negative emotions. If left untreated, it can lead to excessive irritability and aggression and a much greater risk for depression or anxiety, they said.
Digital connection and hyperconnection
The term “digital hyperconnectivity” is used to describe the condition in which everyone is potentially connected to everyone and to an infinity of digital content, everywhere and all the time.
Although this is a fairly new phenomenon, it has become exponentially relevant as social relationships are recasted, re-formatted, and transformed significantly due to hyperconnection sociologist Rogers Brubaker wrote in “Digital Hyperconnectivity and the Self.”
Digital hyperconnectivity has given us the ability to instantly encounter and obtain a massive volume of data and knowledge, more than ever before.
There is a peculiar paradox to it. Hyperconnectivity, enabled by advanced machine learning and personalised algorithms, enframes and enmeshes our choices in systems that preconfigure, formalise and reduce our choices to specific patterns and routines that we are sure to follow, according to Brubaker.
Placing doomscrolling in a digital hyperconnectivity context helps make sense of it. The paradox in doomscrolling is the same paradox found in digital hyperconnectivity: We can always choose to watch a funny video, read an e-book, or listen to a podcast, yet we choose to intentionally expose ourselves to an endless catalogue of anxiety-inducing online material, all because that is what the system encourages us to do.
Years and years of hyperconnectivity has conditioned Internet users to always feel like good news is just one scroll, one-click, one refresh away, Watercutter wrote.
Particularly early on in the global pandemic, we scoured the internet in search of some clarity into why an entire city in China was in lockdown for an exotic virus and why countries worldwide closed off their borders.
Although this coping mechanism is entirely understandable in a collectively traumatising situation as a global pandemic, digital hyperconnectivity is undeniably a significant driver of doomscrolling.
And, as outlined in the Onlife Manifesto in 2014, the negative impacts of doomscrolling are exactly similar to the harmful effects often attributed to hyperconnectivity: cognitive overload, distraction, amnesia (forgetful present), anxiety, and depression.
Is disconnection the answer?
Critics of the hyperconnected society in which we live often refer to disconnection as the ultimate solution for all problems.
In his 2013 article “The Disconnectionists,” social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson described the titular “disconnectionists” with their hopes that through “digital detox” – disconnecting themselves from social media and the digital life overall – they will be able to return to “the real and the meaningful”.
The truth is, all the discussions above on digital hyperconnectivity have painted us a vivid picture of a system designed to keep people “in the loop” where disconnecting is nowhere near easy and, frankly, impossible.
Jurgenson said disconnectionists mistakenly view “online” as “not offline” when in reality, what we do online and offline are inseparable from each other.
Disconnection does not mean freedom if you spend every living minute thinking about what you could have been doing on your phone.
It only takes one quick look at the socially distanced state that we are living in (or lived in?) to see that disconnection is not exactly the solution to doomscrolling. For many of us who are socially distanced from our family and loved ones, digital devices are the only way for us to keep in touch with them and get updates on important news and regulations.
Although doomscrolling have adverse effects on Internet users, no one can deny its impact in raising early awareness about a new strain of virus, keeping people updated about the progress of vaccine development, educate people on ways to prevent transmissions.
Yet some of the discussions regarding doomscrolling have objectively and heavily antagonised doomscrollers for being hyperconnected to their phones. Chastising doomscrollers for their actions would only harm their already-worsening mental health.
Maybe we should not take hyperconnectivity as a peril. Perhaps, the answer to doomscrolling, as cliché as it is, is trying to strike a balance. Over the past two years, some websites online for “good news only” have been founded to combat doomscrolling, such as positive.news.
Actor John Krasinski of The Office started Some Good News, a light-hearted YouTube series during the pandemic that features good news around the world with special guest celebrities.
If we cannot physically and emotionally distance ourselves from the gloom and doom, the best and most proactive action that we can take is to replace some of those depressing news with good journalism about good things. And even though disconnection is seemly impossible, taking breaks is not.
Healthy, mindful breaks from doomscrolling and being online overall will greatly benefit your mental wellbeing.