The Psychology Behind Doomscrolling: The Trap Our Brains Are Programmed to Fall Into Again and Again

  • We’re programmed to search for useful information, but sometimes we come across other kinds of information.

  • The psychology of doomscrolling has similarities with the psychology of addiction.

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Pablo Martínez-Juarez

Scrolling has become a part of our daily routine as social networks have become an integral part of our lives. Linguists have even coined a term for the excessive time spent engrossed in scrolling through posts: doomscrolling.

The word says it all. The term “doom” in “doomscrolling” suggests a sense of impending fate. Mindlessly scrolling through posts often leads to a feeling of discomfort due to the perceived loss of time and a sense of condemnation.

But what exactly happens in our minds and brains when we scroll? Experts often say that apps are designed to be addictive, leading us to spend more time browsing their content. There must be some science behind it.

It all begins with an evolutionary bias.

Ariane Ling, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health, told the BBC that humans are inherently curious about their surroundings. This is evident, for instance, in our interest in the news and the attention we pay to road accidents. Furthermore, curiosity is part of our survival strategies. On this basis, phones play a significant role in keeping us connected to this information, offering an endless stream of information stimuli.

In addition, Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, links doomscrolling to the fear associated with this type of information stimuli. “Doomscrolling really just describes the compulsive need to try and get answers when we’re afraid,” she told the BBC.

Several factors influence the rabbit hole effect associated with doomscrolling. In 2021, two researchers from Cornell University and the Wharton School published the results of a series of studies involving over 6,000 participants.

One experiment involved showing participants a series of music videos and then asking them if they preferred to watch another video or start a given task. The researchers found that those who had only watched one video were more likely to perform the task compared to those who had watched five videos. Surprisingly, the participants didn’t get tired of watching videos. In fact, the more videos they watched, the more they wanted to continue watching.

The second study focused on the homogeneity of the videos. This time, all participants watched the same videos, but the researchers changed how the videos were labeled. The results showed that those who had watched more “homogeneous” videos, even if they weren’t truly homogeneous, were more inclined to want to watch more videos.

The third research project examined the intensity of video watching. One group of participants alternated between watching videos and completing tasks, while the other group watched the videos consecutively and completed the tasks in one sitting. Surprisingly, the participants who watched without interruption were the ones who most inclined to continue watching.

What About the Human Brain?

To understand the impact of cell phone use on our brains, we need to explore the neural centers responsible for processing the sensation of pleasure. In this context, experts conclude that scrolling through our phones is similar to engaging in drug use or other addictive behaviors.

Our brain’s reward system plays a crucial role in driving our search for information, with dopamine being a key player. When we use our phones, our neurons release dopamine, providing us with a sense of reward.

Interestingly, our brain can’t differentiate between gathering useful information and engaging in activities like looking at pictures of animals or reading alarming news. The neurotransmitter release process and the resulting desire for more are the same in all these scenarios.

However, this stimulus doesn’t come without consequences. In fact, some psychologists have associated doomscrolling with damage to our mental health, which occurs through different mechanisms. From a biochemical point of view, some experts believe that when more dopamine is secreted than our brain can reabsorb, it loses its ability to “reboot,” which can lead to anxiety or depression.

Another problem arises from a lack of sleep. Screen use at night can interfere with sleep patterns, so losing track of time while looking at our phones before going to bed can cause sleep problems.

Finally, certain content, such as pessimistic news, can also generate anxiety. Contradictions in stories we receive from different sources can also cause confusion and contribute to “crazymaking,” Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says.

So, how can you avoid doomscrolling? First, let’s identify the problem. You can start by distancing yourself from your phone. For instance, you can leave it in another room while you work or before going to sleep. Although it requires some skill, you can also recognize the moment when you’re mindlessly scrolling through content and consciously get your phone out of sight.

Self-reflection is also essential. In this regard, another common recommendation is to be mindful of your feelings and watch for signs of mental fatigue or tiredness.

Other strategies include redirecting your curiosity to other topics or focusing on the present moment. You can also try not to dwell too much on the news, avoiding catastrophic thinking, and actively seeking out positive news.

Image | Eddy Billard via Unsplash

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