Doomscrolling: The Ultimate Negative Flow State
First, A Little Psychology
I've written before about social media use and how it can be both helpful and harmful. The article, Is Social Media Reflecting Our Pathology or Adding to It?, concluded that social media does both. The trick to making social media a positive experience is understanding how their algorithms work. The first of four recommendations I made in that article was to 'Start with the End in Mind." This may seem obvious but often we engage with social media out of boredom, anxiety, or even habit without any clear goal of what we are hoping to get out of the experience. And even when we do have an objective when we start scrolling, we can quickly lose our way.
For example, if you are having a bad day and are feeling a little sad, you may be more likely to click on Instagram posts that match this mood. Because you are in a sad mood, you may even be more likely to reach out to social media. Before long, the algorithm catches this trend and determines that they can keep you more engaged if they show you more 'sad' posts. And it can happen fast. According to the Wall Street Journal, after only 35 minutes of surfing TikTok, they were able to create a profile that included the tag 'sad' 93% of the time after watching and rewatching a video tagged with that term. Other bots in their experiment did not watch that video a second time and did not develop a 'sad' profile.
Starting with the end in mind does not mean merely what is your goal for the next 10 minutes while you wait for your bus, but also refers to your use of social media altogether. Your goal may be to watch some sad videos or read some sad posts to help you express your feelings. There is nothing wrong with that - in fact, engaging with others is one of the incredible benefits of technology and social media.
When we engage fully, we may find ourselves in a state of flow. Flow is the opposite of apathy and occurs when we we are challenged at a level congruent with our skill. For example, athletes often find a flow state when they engage in their sport because everything about them is focused on what they are doing in that very moment. Imagine the slalom skier moving down the mountain at nearly 50 miles per hour. Slalom skiing is an extreme sport. Just to make it to the bottom of the hill requires “the continuous application of highest-level skills and concentration" (Buckley, 2018, p. 5, quoted in Struthers, 2022). This is flow at its extreme.
While most of us don't master that level of flow intensity, we all have moments of flow. Even mundane tasks like scrolling through TikTok as you wait on your bus can produce a flow like state. When we are in flow, we lose track of time and we often miss things that happen around us - we focus our attention on a specific task. We typically think of flow as a positive though because it amplifies those aspects of ourselves that help us flourish - or help us stay alive if we were descending a mountain on skis at 50mph.
But sometimes being in flow can have negative consequences that outweigh the positive. Imagine as you waited at your bus stop that you didn't look up from your phone until the bus was pulling away. You would likely see your flowstate as having some negative consequences. You may have missed the bus because you were watching really funny video with a talking dog. But what if you were reading the latest negative news, or watching 'sad' videos? What if you were so engaged with this that you lost track of time? That you missed your bus reading negative news?
If you find yourself engaged in negativity when online, whether it be about politics or mental health, you may be doomscrolling. Another bus may soon arrive if you wait but escaping the negativity in your feed and turning it around will take a lot more effort.
What is Doomscrolling and How to Stop It
Social media can be positive or negative. If you find yourself in a flow state because you are engaged with like-minded others, for example, you would likely see this as a positive. If you spent the same amount of time and energy viewing 'sad' posts or reading negative news, would that also be a positive? If it helps you express your feelings then it may be a wonderfully positive experience, but if it sends you down a rabbit hole of negativity then you are no longer in a positive flow state. At this point you might be doomscrolling.
Doomscrolling seems to be the ultimate negative flow state. Doomscrolling (or doomsurfing when applied to the web) is the engagement with negative online material resulting in a negative impact on your psychological functioning. With politics and negative news everywhere these days, doomscrolling often has to do with watching or reading the news. It can also relate to mental health as doomscrolling and doomsurfing not only reflect our pathology, they can also add to it. Since we can naturally enter flow states, it will take some effort on your part to break the habit. It needs to be intentional. Here are some recommendations for how to take back control:
1. Start with the End on Mind
As Yogi Berra famously said, "If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else." Starting with the end in mind means determining your goal for surfing the web or browsing social media before you open the app rather than jumping in blindly. There is nothing wrong with the latter but do so purposefully (see my second recommendation). Consider the following questions:
- What is my goal for reading the news or engaging with social media?
- Am I looking for community? Information? Entertainment? Or am I just bored?
- How will reading the news or engaging with social media help me achieve my goals?
2. Break the Dissociation - Set a Timer
Often we find ourselves doomscrolling after we are fully engaged. Being in flow turns off external receptors - meaning that the outside world disappears from our immediate focus. This includes people, time, and situation. Doomscrolling, like positive flow states, is a dissociative state. If you find yourself getting lost in doomscrolling for longer than you'd like, set a timer. Doing this will break your dissociation and allow you to make a more rational decision on whether or not to continue. Don't just make a mental note to stop after 30 minutes - actually set a timer or alarm on your watch or phone.
3. Mix it Up or Restart
Doomscrolling is about getting stuck in a negative cycle off scrolling (or surfing) - it takes advantage of our natural negativity bias. When we are in a negative mood or have a specific viewpoint, our confirmation bias kicks in as well. Consider it a downward cycle, especially since social media and news algorithms will focus your feed on whatever it determines will keep you engaged. One way to stop this downward cycle is to purposefully engage with something else - search for a specific term or close the app and start again. The algorithm adjusts quickly and by clicking on a couple of positive posts or watching a more positive video you will notice positive changes to your feed.
4. Take a Break or an Entire Vacation
If you find yourself doomscrolling or in a negative flow state regarding technology and struggle with stopping, abstinence may be an option. According to a recent article in the journal Cyber Psychology, taking a one week break from social media improves well-being, depression, and anxiety (Lambert et al., 2022). The researchers asked 154 users of TikTok to stop using the app and completed both pre-testing and post-testing. Their results showed that all of their variables improved significantly, suggesting that a simple social media vacation can impact your mental health in a significantly positive way.
Buckley, R. C. (2018). To analyze thrill, define extreme sports. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01216
Heffner, C. L. (2022). Is social media reflecting our pathology or adding to it? Retrieved from http://blog.allpsych.com/is-social-media-reflecting-our-pathology-or-adding-to-it/
Lambert, J., Barstable, G., Minter, E., Cooper, J., & McEwan, D. (2022). Taking a one-week break from social media improves well-being, depression, and anxiety: A randomized controlled trial. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 25(5), 287-293. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2021.0324
Struthers, G. L. (2022). The lived experiences of sports retirement among elite, action sports athletes. PsyD Doctoral Dissertation, Antioch University Seattle.