At the beginning of the year, when the novel coronavirus was still on the other side of the world, journalist Karen K. Ho kept finding herself up after midnight, trawling social media sites like Twitter for news. Ho rationalized her late-night binge-reading since the middle of the night in the U.S. was morning in Asia. And that’s where most COVID-19 news was breaking. But as months went by, the habit lingered.
And Ho is not alone. This habit has become so widespread in 2020 that it has its own name: Doomscrolling—or continually refreshing your news feed even though you know whatever you read next will likely be terrible.
“As soon as I saw someone use the term I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing that for about a year,’” she says. In fact, the term has been around since at least 2018, but Ho popularized it in her nightly reminders to Twitter followers to log off and go to bed. (Which, by the way: If you’re reading this late at night, you should do. Just leave the tab open; we’ll be here in the morning.)
hi. you're probably doomscrolling right now. it's understandable - a lot happened today.— Karen K. Ho is mailing postcards (@karenkho) August 27, 2020
Staying up late looking at your phone will only make you more tired. A solid night's rest will give you the energy needed to help others and keep doing your work.
Now, a new study published in the journal Sleep has confirmed what Ho began to discover through her first-hand experience months ago: Endless consumption of news is bad for our sleep—especially if it’s done late at night. 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, the latter of which occurred significantly more frequently among women, people unemployed before the lockdown, and those with financial difficulties due to the lockdown.
It’s unclear however, if doomscrolling caused the sleep problems or increased already existing sleep issues. “Being forced to stay home and the ensuing boredom and loneliness may have led to increased [media exposure], especially among disadvantaged people, and overexposure to media COVID-19 content may have contributed to fright and emotional distress,” the study authors wrote in Sleep. On the other hand, “Suffering from sleep problems may have increased media use at night, and thus increased stress and/or psychological distress and reinforced sleeping problems.”
Doomscrolling Disrupts Our Hormones
Noemi Viganò, a counseling psychologist who leads research for the online mental health platform SilverCloud, says doomscrolling presents two problems. First: Anxiety and sleep don’t mix. Right now, the news is perpetually bad. “The sense of safety in the world has really been shaken,” says Viganò. Worst of all, none of us know when this is all going to be over. Reading about our grim present and our precarious future is precisely the kind of thing that triggers the fight or flight reflexes in our brain.
While most of us like to think our brains are sophisticated, Viganò argues that really, they’re quite primitive. Reading about infection rates and job losses can trigger the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. In ancient times, these hormones would have primed our body to run away from a predator. Today, they leave us feeling wired when what we really want is to snooze.
The other issue with doomscrolling? Screen time before bed is disruptive to your body’s natural sleep process. “Screens in [and of] themselves are very stimulating,” Viganò says, adding that they emit blue light, which inhibits the release of melatonin, a hormone that’s crucial to helping our bodies realize it’s time to rest.
And waking up rested is important—especially during a pandemic. “Not only do we not function at our optimum if we don’t sleep well, it can also impact mood, lead to physical health problems, and cause accidents,” says Viganò. All of which can exacerbate anxiety and depression.
So, why can’t we unglue ourselves from our screens?
“We want to have a sense of what's going on,” says Viganò, adding that usually knowledge grants us power. In this situation, however, most of us are powerless to change what’s happening globally, so knowledge is giving us anxiety.
How to Stop Doomscrolling and Reclaim Quality Sleep
Avoiding the news isn’t realistic and could even be dangerous if it causes us to miss important coronavirus updates. Instead, Viganò suggests adopting a technique she recommends to people who suffer from anxiety: Every day allow yourself a small window of time to worry. When the time is up, move on and banish all anxious thoughts.
To apply this approach to your media consumption, give yourself 30 minutes in the morning or afternoon to catch up on the news, and then tune out, she suggests. Keep your evenings screen-free so you’re more likely to fall asleep faster.
You may also want to revisit your bedtime routine. “A routine can really help your body and mind wind down,” she says, adding that humans find comfort in the predictability of doing the same thing at the same time every day. Unfortunately, many of us have had our lives upended by the pandemic, which means it’s possible you've fallen into a new, not-so-healthy routine. If so, revisit these basic sleep hygiene tips. It only takes about four days to change a habit, says Viganò, so better sleep could be yours this week.
A few months back, Ho took a good hard look at her nightly doomscrolling habit and admitted it was problematic. “I realized, if I’m feeling this, there is a non-zero chance that someone else is feeling this,” she says.
Her hunch was correct. Since sending out a nightly reminder to log-off Twitter, Ho has gained nearly 10,000 more followers. Ironically, she says those new followers make it harder to log-off since they often respond to her nightly “Hey you, go to bed” tweet. Still, she’s going to keep posting those tweets—closing her laptop the moment after she hits send.
“If I'm going to have any sort of influence on the internet, I want to use my power for good,” she says, adding that, after 10 p.m., there’s nothing on the Internet more important than a good night’s rest.
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