Scrolling to Your Doom — By Bart Theriot

This post is a follow up to a more expansive discussion written in my three-part post entitled \”From Netflix To Depression.\” Today we are going to discuss \”Doomscrolling,\” what it is, what it is not, and what we can do about it.

\”Doomscrolling\” is an ugly word.  Although, perhaps biased assessments like that are unhelpful.  Then again, this entire post is mainly my opinion, so I\’m going to leave it.  This relatively new word reminds me of another ugly, social-media-spawned word \”unfriend\”, which was named \”word of the year\” by the New Oxford Dictionary back in 2009.  If you can find a more accurate foretelling of the future than that, let me know.

Spell check does not recognize \”doomscrolling\” yet, but just like we all immediately understood what it meant to unfriend someone, or at least we thought we did, you and I have already absorbed \”doomscrolling\” into our vernacular. The Cambridge Dictionary website defines it as \”the activity of spending a lot of time looking at your phone or computer reading bad or negative news stories.\” Merriam-Webster reads: \”to spend excessive time online scrolling through news or other content that makes one feel sad, anxious, angry, etc.\” That definition seems to add an important idea, how the experience makes you feel. goes the farthest with \”The practice of obsessively checking online news for updates, especially on social media feeds, with the expectation that the news will be bad, such that the feeling of dread from this negative expectation fuels a compulsion to continue looking for updates in a self-perpetuating cycle.\”

Clearly, this word is still being kicked around the sandbox at this point, but I think the truth is somewhere in the combination of those three definitions. If you noticed, Cambridge Dictionary\’s definition leaves out something important, which is the expectation of bad news. The final definition makes it clear that the \”doom\” part of the word refers to that very expectation. In this definition, people are, consciously or not, searching for doom. This idea does lend a level of appropriateness to the word.  However, if I had been asked to come up with my own original definition, the \”doom\” part of the compound word would not have referred to the content.

I\’m not saying content is irrelevant, but in the definition of the word, I interpret \”doom\” as referring to the result of the action of \”scrolling\” rather than search for or expectation of a negative result.  Anyway, the practice itself is not nearly as new as the word.  We\’ve all had the experience of doomscrolling long before any of us would have labeled it as such. I was an early but very low level user of Facebook. I scrolled quite a bit, but almost never posted. In fact, for the first year or so, I remember being surprised, and if I\’m being honest, a little hurt, when no one \”liked\” my posts. Eventually, I figured out that I had my post settings on \”only me,\” which, if that setting still exists on Facebook…Meta, I doubt anyone but Zuckerberg could tell you why. That discovery let me know that I wasn\’t ready for the big leagues. I continued to use Facebook for work and created groups for my school. However, in my personal use, I stuck to lurking and scrolling until one serendipitous day, my phone ended up in the ocean, hidden in the pocket of a beach chair. A few weeks later when I got my new phone, I didn\’t install the Facebook app.

I was unknowingly a part of a minor and apparently temporary push to \”delete Facebook\” somewhere around 2015.  I recall some of my Facebook friends announcing a \”pause\” in social media for one reason or another. Because of the way it happened for me, I can\’t say there was any one particular factor or moment, which led to the decision.  Although I can say I had seen more than enough of what my Facebook friends had been eating.  I do know the decision to leave Facebook was a conscious one, because afterward I tried my best to be aware of any differences to which I could attribute the lack of Facebook in my life.  During those first few weeks, each time I picked up my phone, I distinctly remember feeling that my time was more under my own control.  There was a sort of lightness. It felt as if I had shrugged off a coat that was a bit too heavy for the weather.

A couple of years later, my son introduced me to Reddit.  I installed the app as a way of connecting with him.  We\’d subscribe to some of the same SubReddit groups and occasionally forward posts to each other.  Once again, I rarely posted or commented myself, but managed to waste plenty of time scrolling. I operated about about 99% consumption, 1% creation. Ironically, and without much fanfare, Aidan actually deleted Reddit from his own phone long before I did.  He told me he was getting tired of watching the comment threads invariably devolve toward misery or politics.  In other words, my teenage son had the good sense to recognize he was on the train to doom and decided to get off at the station before I did.  As in my own definition, he was not seeking his own doom, but felt its looming presence none the less. He gave me his reasons one time when I mentioned a clip I had seen on the platform.  He said that there seemed to be a lot of depressed people on the internet. It wasn\’t long after that, I decided to join my son in a Redditless existence.

Then came Tiktok.  Same use profile for me, except I dropped that 1% creation.  Never commented once.  Never posted.  After those first two social media experiences, I entered into this one with eyes wide open.  Operating from that perspective, the downside of Tiktok was hard to miss.  The same sense that I was being pushed or pulled by an unseen force was there again.  The little time I had available became less and less my own. I also started to notice that my home feed began to include more videos of political vitriol, street fights, scantily clad women directing me toward other websites and of course, the misery of life. As I said, content was not the primary issue, but it definitely made the situation worse.

The \”interests\” I checked off when I setup my account were pretty benign; Education, Nature, Philosophy, Food.  So I typically spent part of my time on my own home feed and part on the \”popular\” feed, which I assume was meant to represent the cumulative interests of humanity.  Based upon how algorithms interpret the interests of the individual, unique user, one could argue that some part of my scrolling revealed my own tendencies.  However, that idea takes this post in a more metaphysical direction for which no one but me has any interest or time.

There was one other aspect of Tiktok, which ultimately concerned me the most.  It was not the notion that all of my information was being collected and used by a sinister Chinese corporation.  In fact, I only recognized the issue because I had been intentionally searching for the side effects of these apps based upon previous social media use.  As I scrolled through posts, I consistently noticed a slight emotional change in myself.  I was rarely able to tie the feeling to any particular content, but I do know that in most cases, I felt worse after scrolling than I did before I started.  Heavier, sluggish, dulled and definitely disappointed. It was the easily identifiable feeling of diminished happiness, and it often lingered well after I put the phone down.

Even though I had become aware of it, I nevertheless became used to it.  I cannot say how quickly my mood would change to something more positive in between phone uses.  However, I did recognize how these feelings negatively impacted the first human interaction after putting down the phone.  At some point, I started to notice that same feeling would appear as soon as I picked up my phone with the intent of scrolling.  It became such a familiar and immediate feeling.  Only it was not as if I snatched unhappiness out of the air.  It felt like I had been unwittingly carrying it with me or that it had simply been waiting in my subconscious, but never fully gone.

In a phone call with my son, he mentioned that he and most of his friends had deleted Tiktok from their phones.  At this point, I noticed the theme that my son was simply ahead of me in this internet awareness excursion. He said it was just becoming toxic and the time suck was particularly bad for a college student who had other work to do.  By the time of that conversation, I had already started to consider an exit plan myself and it was not long after that I deleted the app.

You might be wondering where Instagram falls in this story.  Frankly, for me, it was three strikes and I\’m out.  I never signed up. However, I imagine had I opened an account, the experience would have been the same as that my previous social media efforts. In all those years of scrolling, I\’m sure I connected with some friends, learned new things and maybe even generated my own ideas from the influences, but today I have a hard time remembering any single thing I picked up or put down. Thankfully, that must also apply to the miserable things I learned as well.

We all know people who seem to exchange drama and negativity as a currency.  They are the first to share it when it is there and will sometimes go so far as to create it when it is not.  Even without the internet, these people are in constant search of doom.  Perhaps it is innate, or life experience or simply that they have fallen victim to the natural brain tendency of seeking out what is wrong instead of what is right.  They say misery loves company and there is no shortage of it on the internet.  The algorithm does its best to find you, but those in search of it, cannot help but find it.

I never once consciously opened up any of these sites looking for bad news.  However it happened, that just is not the way my brain works. Whether I saw skateboarding Frenchies or an insult-laden political rant, I never felt the information added up to an impending apocalypse.  In his book \”The Coddling of the American Mind\”, Jonathan Haidt might identifies two main generational fallacies, which contribute to the growing despair in our youth.  The unsubstantiated beliefs that \”Anything that doesn\’t kill you makes you weaker and the world is a battle between good people and evil people.\” Those thoughts do not apply to me, but when used as the backbone of a belief system, it is easy to see how debilitating the search for doom might become.

\”…regardless of the images or information, we detach ourselves a tiny bit from the world with each vertical swipe of the thumb. \”

What I felt, as I scrolled, was a gradual but unavoidable descent into a personal doom of my own making.  That\’s what \”doomscrolling\” is to me.  It isn\’t about a deep-seeded certainty that the world is a horrible place and getting worse.  It is that regardless of the images or information, we detach ourselves a tiny bit from the world with each vertical swipe of the thumb.  Whether that destination is our own doom or something else, I doubt anyone can say.  However, look at any study you want and talk to every therapist or medical professional about basic human needs.  Boring, tedious, disappointing or uncomfortable, we are meant to engage with the real world.  Individually it is necessary for meaningful life. Collectively, our very existence depends upon it.

If those opinions aren\’t enough, look inward (something that seems increasingly less likely in human beings these days).  Our bodies let us know when there is physical distress.  A fever is a clear message that there is a fight going on inside us.  What if the sadness, anger, anxiety or even the malaise we feel is a distress call from the part of ourselves fighting to hold on to the real world?  Surely, that would be a message worth heeding.

What can you do about it?  Advising anyone to delete or even avoid any one app over another is not a real solution.  I am interested in options that strengthen us from within.  In that way, whether we are exposed to the challenge or not, we have the ability to withstand and grow from whatever life offers.  The first step in a solution like this must be cognitive.  We control our minds.  So we must think in a way that leads us to the desired result.

Think hard about  your social media experience.  Before, during and after.  Observe.  Analyze. What did you feel?  Why?  Note patterns and consistencies.  Are things getting worse, better or do they remain the same?  What do the people in your life think and how does your \”doomscrolling\” affect them?  Has anyone mentioned to you that you might be taking it a bit too far?  If so, did that make you feel defensive or did it sound like something you already knew?

Is your mind sending you a distress signal?  The answer may not be so simple.  Humans are notoriously bad at reading signs when they add up to something we don\’t want to know.  Paradoxically, we tend to believe that we know more than we actually do.  So most of us see the  pall of doomscrolling as a known but acceptable side-effect.  Like a hangover.  It\’s just a required part of the experience.  However, just like a hangover, when you look back on the night before, it was rarely ever worth it.

A distress signal is more commonly known as a cry for help.  The thing about a cry for help is that it is usually aimed outward to enlist the assistance of those around you.  When the call comes from inside the house, no one can hear it but you.  No matter the algorithm or content moderators, it always comes back to you. Those who make money off of our attention bear some of the blame, but if your full consideration of the problem aims only outward, you just might truly be doomed after all.

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