When Tiffany Schultz finally quit Facebook, it came after years of unease with the division and negativity she saw there. She joined the social network in 2006 but says she “had not been a very big fan of Facebook for a while. … I saw it as a necessary evil after moving from Wisconsin,” the now-Leicester resident and Franny’s Farm manager tells Xpress.
In summer 2020, racial justice protests broke out in Schultz’s former city of Kenosha following the police shooting of a Black man named Jacob Blake. She had friends who attended Black Lives Matters protests and livestreamed them on Facebook.
“I glued myself to my computer screen and watched these two people I know document and experience the very police brutality they were protesting against,” she recalls. When Kyle Rittenhouse came to a protest and killed two people, Schultz’s friends “were in the crowd running from the gunshots.”
Soon the whole world was talking about the Kenosha protests and shooting. “I read so many cruel and ignorant comments from highly opinionated people that weren’t there and probably only read a headline,” Schultz recalls. She realized she was doomscrolling — mindlessly consuming online content that creates “emotion-fueled reactions,” as she puts it.
So after 14 years on the social network, she quit Facebook in summer 2020.
Unrolling the scroll
Doomscrolling, also called doomsurfing, isn’t a clinical diagnosis. The term, popularized on Twitter by Quartz reporter Karen Ho, refers to consuming social media or news, typically on a screen, that creates negative mental states like anxiety, fear or sadness.
Doomscrolling usually stems from trying to be better informed, says Dr. Dominique Huneycutt, a psychologist at Asheville’s Mountain Area Health Education Center. People feel that by understanding something, they can minimize or mitigate its risks. “We will go to great lengths to avoid uncertainty,” she explains.
She notes how, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone was trying to understand what was happening (what psychologists would call an adaptive coping strategy). “I think in a very healthy way, we were trying to get answers,” Huneycutt says. “But not having answers was worse in the moment … almost an inertia.”
People struggled to accept not having answers from the medical community or from politicians, she continues, and the way they tried to assuage this was by consuming as much media as possible.
“As humans, we want to figure things out, and in many ways, we’re taught to figure things out: look around, ask the expert,” Huneycutt says.
“Wikipedia and TikTok are not the expert,” she continues. Under normal circumstances, most people know this. But in times of instability, people want to be soothed by answers — any answers — to their concerns.
“With doomscrolling comes altered brain function, decreased sleep, potential increased nightmares, increase in mood disorder symptoms, decreased engagement in interpersonal relationships and decreased engagement in ‘fun’ or more productive activities,” says Katie Salmons, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical supervisor at Asheville Academy in Black Mountain, a therapeutic boarding school for tweens and teens.
Tim Bandell, a licensed clinical social worker with All Souls Counseling in Asheville, compares the effect of doomscrolling-driven anxiety on the body’s nervous system to an overactive motor. “The quicker that motor is going and the more is happening all at once, the more likely it is to feel out of control,” he says. “That’s basically what’s happening in our nervous system — it’s running too much, that motor, and it’s more likely to bring harm to us.”
Anxiety alters health indicators like blood pressure and heart rate and can shift behavior as well, he continues. “We’re less able to use that thinking center in our brain where we can rationalize, regulate, think of the consequences ahead of time and take into consideration everything,” Bandell explains.
That can raise issues when doomscrolling requires the evaluation of information, like whether a news source is trustworthy. “It doesn’t help us adapt, actually, to the situation in front of us,” Bandell says. “People may not even realize they’re stuck in this compulsive pattern.”
The word pattern is key: The effects of doomscrolling aren’t the same for everyone, Salmon notes. One person’s daily doomscroll might look very similar to another person’s occasional trip down the social media rabbit hole. “Doomscrolling’s impact really just depends on the level that is used and how it impacts each individual’s ability to various capacities of their lives,” she explains.
Salmon compares the behavior to consuming true-crime podcasts. Some people may be repulsed at their very first exposure, while others can — and do — consume multiple seasons of murder, cruelty and inhumanity without being distrubed.
People can doomscroll anywhere from mainstream media websites to obscure message boards. The mental health providers who spoke with Xpress say they primarily see clients doomscrolling on social media, citing YouTube, TikTok and Facebook as the most common platforms.
A 2020 study of 7,000 adults published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found increased time on social media, as well as the number of forms of traditional media consulted, was associated with higher levels of mental distress. And a 2021 study found that consuming only two to four minutes of pandemic-related news led to “immediate and significant reductions in positive affect and optimism.”
Bandell says part of human nature is being drawn to pain and suffering and notes how social justice-minded people may be especially drawn to the inequities of the world. Finding both collective and individual solutions to problems is essential, he continues, but social media research doesn’t always provide a “well-rounded perspective.”
But even as a mental health provider, Bandell isn’t immune to doomscrolling. “YouTube, in particular, I can sometimes get pulled in an hour later to be, like, ‘Wow, what am I doing here?’” he says.
Being deluged with information can scratch the brain’s itch for self-preservation, but that’s not the only mental impact of doomscrolling: The technology is built to reinforce use through dopamine-fueled rewards.
“I don’t think everybody always separates that you’re getting an emotional onslaught from content, but you’re also getting a reward,” says Huneycutt, the MAHEC psychologist. Simply seeing more “likes” on comments that one agrees with activates the brain’s reward system, creating a loop of reinforcement, she says.
The desire to doomscroll can be exacerbated by social media algorithms that show people more content similar to what they’ve already consumed, notes Ellen Kathrein, a school-based social worker for MAHEC.
In its most extreme form, doomscrolling can be compulsive, says Huneycutt. And Salmons adds that it can be a symptom of technology addiction. (Technology addiction and internet addiction have not been recognized as disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the reference of the American Psychiatric Association; nevertheless, the terms are commonly used to describe technology usage that impairs a person’s function.)
Anecdotally, some mental health providers tell Xpress the tone with which some media outlets package the news is associated with doomscrolling. Negative stories can get the most coverage or promotion through social algorithms, as can stories with all-caps or large-font headlines.
Low-self esteem from negative interactions on social media can be another side effect of doomscrolling. Kathrein, who works in Asheville Middle School, says she’s seen tweens and teens doomscrolling over reactions to their own social media content.
“There’s a lot of unfiltered comments [that are] probably not developmentally appropriate for anybody to read,” she says, explaining comments can have “a lot of anger.” Grappling with heated comments, especially if they come from adults, “can be really harsh and confusing,” Kathrein says.
Isolation from quarantines, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders has affected many people, as have sharply polarized ideological and political divisions. Kathrein says she’s seen remote learning in particular lead to young people feeling isolated and spending more time on their phones.
Social contact is a baseline human need, and modern technology can facilitate its fulfillment. But Huneycutt also warns about users developing “a false sense of connection” with Twitter followers, media figures or internet influencers.
For Schultz, who quit Facebook, connection comes through more traditional methods: picking up the phone or writing a letter. And, crucially, she says she’s now interacting with the world in ways that are more positive for her mental health.
Gardening, she says, “is way more satisfying than reading arguments in the comments on posts about COVID or politics.”