It’s been two years since the Oxford English Dictionary named “doomscrolling” the word of the year. And yet, in those two years, few of us have quit the habit.
Doomscrolling is exactly what it sounds like: the constant refreshing of social media sites or aggregators, leading you on a swirl down a bad-news spiral. What started for many of us as a quest to learn more about the COVID-19 pandemic back in early 2020 is now a full-blown habit as we take in what can feel like a vortex of less-than-uplifting updates about the state of the world, the climate, the latest health crisis, or any number of other topics.
Despite the grimness of the habit, many of us carry on with our doomscrolling. A poll of 2,526 people conducted by SleepScore Labs found that 71% of us are in the habit of scrolling the Internet before bed.
While reading stressful news can spike anxiety levels no matter the time of day, it’s particularly problematic before bed, says Dr. Chris Winter, a sleep neurologist and Sleep.com sleep advisor. “Humans have an ability to temporarily override sleep,” he says, adding that this override feature is vital for our survival. “If you’re drifting off to sleep and you smell smoke, your body will wake you back up,” he explains. The same thing happens when you read a dire warning about the collapse of American democracy or a new COVID variant.
However, the good news is that you can break your doomscrolling habit. Even better: Doing so will likely improve the quality of your sleep and your overall mental health. Here’s what you need to know about how late-night news-binging may be harming you, and how to finally turn off the bad news and tuck in for some quality rest.
What is doomscrolling?
Doomscrolling goes further than mindless scrolling. It combines an intense feeling of impending doom with the habit of spending an inordinate amount of time online seeking information. While a quick Internet search reveals the term has been around since 2018, journalist Karen K. Ho is generally seen as the reason “doomscrolling” became a common household term in 2020. Early in the pandemic, Ho realized she was often staying up all night, reading news coming from Asia about the novel coronavirus. When she saw someone use the term “doomscrolling,” it clicked as exactly what she’d been doing. Every night since mid-2020, Ho, who has more than 55,000 Twitter followers, has reminded readers to log off and get some rest.
Ho wasn’t the only one who felt “seen” when learning the term. A Google Trend graph of searches for “doomscrolling” over the past four years shows no activity at all for the term until 2020. Searches spike in July 2020 and only go up from there. A 2022 study published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, meanwhile, found that doomscrolling is a uniquely new way people are interacting with news online. Researchers at the University of Florida wanted to see if the term was simply catching on to an existing way of consuming content, or if the pandemic actually changed how people absorbed information. It turns out that endless scrolling through bad news is new — and that may be a problem for your health.
Doomscrolling and your health
Even just small amounts of time spent doomscrolling can have mental health consequences. A 2021 study published in PLOS One found that just four minutes of reading news about COVID-19 led to immediate and significant reductions in positive affect — or mood — and optimism.
Doomscroll right before bed, and that bad mood may follow you into your dreams. In a 2020 study published in the journal Sleep, researchers in France polled more than 1,000 French citizens about their sleep during the pandemic. A whopping 73% of respondents reported poor sleep due to the pandemic, and the researchers also found a strong correlation between high media exposure and severe sleep problems.
Research done by SleepScore Labs found those who scrolled their phones before bed had lower SleepScores, had lower sleep efficiency, and went to bed later than those with better pre-sleep routines. That lack of sleep adds up — SleepScore’s data found that those who admitted to using their phones before bed spent less time in bed overall. Research has shown that those who regularly skimp on sleep are at higher risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke, as well as changes in weight, mood, and cognition.
To understand why doomscrolling is so problematic for sleep, you have to understand the one-two punch this habit is inflicting on your brain. “Excessive screen usage that is bright enough and too close to our eyes can delay the release of melatonin, a ‘hormone of darkness’ released in response to darkness and associated with regulating the sleep-wake cycle,” says Elie Gottlieb, Ph.D., an applied sleep scientist at SleepScore Labs. He adds, “[When engaged] with our screens while ingesting stressful content, it can also be cognitively or emotionally taxing, and thus trigger physiological arousal and alertness.” That’s a stimulating trigger when your brain should be transitioning from fight-or-flight mode into the rest-and-relax mode of a bedtime routine.
Doomscrolling problems appear to be especially prevalent among young people. SleepScore Labs research found young people are especially prone to scrolling before bed. Gottlieb says this habit among our youth may have serious consequences. Indeed, a 2015 review of studies published in Sleep Medicine Reviews found that in 90% of studies, screen time was associated with delayed sleep times and less sleep overall for school-age children and adolescents.
Why we doomscroll
If you want to stop doomscrolling, the obvious first step is to put your phone away, ideally in another room. But it can be surprisingly hard to untether from the endless fountain of information that is the Internet. That’s because grasping for knowledge is one way for humans to try and make sense of a world that otherwise feels scary, write the authors of a 2021 paper published in PLOS One about the effects of doomscrolling on mental health. “We want to have a sense of what's going on,” says Noemi Viganò, a counseling psychologist who leads research for the online mental health platform SilverCloud. She adds that humans are generally hardwired to believe that knowledge gives them power. While that may be true in many scenarios, it’s less true when we’re reading about geopolitical turmoil.
Furthermore, your phone — and the social media sites you log on to via that phone — is designed to keep you engaged. With one link leading to another leading to another, it’s easy to look up at the clock and realize you’re up much later than you wanted to be, says Winter, who says that yes, even sleep medicine doctors doomscroll.
Part of the problem is that just continuing to scroll is physically easier than the act of getting up and preparing for bed, says Winter. “It’s very common that people are on the knife’s edge of getting ready for bed. They’re not that far away from turning away from their devices. If someone took your phone away, you’d go to bed,” he explains. So why can’t we do that? Because so much of the content we consume when we doomscroll feels so urgent, and algorithms on the Internet are designed to serve you up one tempting link after another to keep you from closing that app.
How to stop doomscrolling
The first step is to realize you’re doing it, says Winter. The good news is that most of us have some clue that too much bad news isn’t good for our well-being. Two studies, one done in Norway, the other out of Australia, found that many people had put “new avoidance” strategies into play during the pandemic to try to keep their intake of bad news to sips from the Internet firehose. However, if you’re in a serious habit of scrolling until midnight or beyond, you may need more help breaking free.
The best next step is: Set a rule. “I think it’s helpful to say no X after a certain time,” says Winter. But you don’t have to ditch screens entirely. “I think people are entitled to watch an episode of ‘Succession’ after dinner,” he adds. But you may want a rule like no talking about or reading about stressful world events after 9 p.m. Or stay off social media after 9:30. If you do want to watch TV, pick something other than the news and consider wearing blue-light-blocking glasses.
Setting a timer can be a great way to ensure you stick to your rule. Winter remembers a patient who set timers on the lights in her living room. At 11:30 p.m., the lights went out, and she’d be left sitting in the dark. Sure, she could manually get up and override the timers, but it was simply easier to go to bed. If putting your lamps on timers seems like too much work, consider setting an alarm in your bedroom. If you’re scrolling in the kitchen, you’ll have to get up and literally go to your bed to turn it off. That can be a good reminder of where you’re supposed to be and what you should be doing (or not doing).
Finally, changing your routine can help keep bad habits from creeping back in, says Winter. Consider setting a whole new pre-sleep schedule, perhaps including screen-free activities like reading or meditating. If world events have you on edge, swap something actionable in where you’d normally doomscroll, like praying or making a donation to charity, suggests Winter. If all else fails, you can also set a social-media blocker on your phone, like Stay Focused or Freedom.
One last bit of advice: If you’re panicked about the state of the world, don’t also panic about the state of your sleep. Sure, maybe you doomscrolled for too long tonight, says Winter. That may make it harder for you to nod off. But our bodies do find their way to sleep eventually, no matter how difficult or even impossible it might seem. Adding anxiety about your sleep schedule to your already hefty list of worries isn’t going to help the situation. Just let it go and try to log off earlier tomorrow.