We’re all exhausted by the barrage of tragic news this month. There is a reason for that.
There is some evidence that obsessively watching the news can be just as psychologically damaging as having experienced the event itself.
Nine years ago, the Boston Marathon bombing shook America. Understandably, the news almost exclusively covered this event after the tragedy. However, some Americans followed the coverage like hawks, viewing over six hours of coverage per day in the week following the attack. Those who watched that much were more likely to suffer acute anxiety than people who were directly affected in real life.
This study demonstrated that overloading on news can detrimentally affect our well-being. Even if most don’t spend six hours a day watching coverage of a disaster, other studies have shown that engagement with the news for just a couple of hours a day can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression.
What is doomscrolling?
Doomscrolling happens when we get caught in a spiral of reading negative headlines and scroll through social media looking for bad news. It’s easy to start with one pessimistic article and click on a link to another one halfway through, and then continue the cycle. It’s also particularly vicious on social media because an algorithm will put you on a feedback loop of bad news.
Although doomscrolling is unhealthy, it can feel comforting at the moment because it gives our brain the illusion of control. Our brain feels better if it has more information about something outside of our control, therefore we feel a “darkly soothing compulsion.”
Anxiety’s role in doomscrolling
One UK study showed that high media intake is associated with anxiety and depression, especially during the COVID lockdown. Even journalists report feeling overwhelmed by the inflow of information they must sift through. It’s no wonder that around two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied and “worn out” by the amount of news they intake.
Purely from an information perspective, we intake far more than we could ever use, remember, or that would be relevant to us (I’m guilty of this).
But people who are prone to anxiety fall into doomscrolling more easily. “Doomscrolling is essentially an avoidance technique used to cope with anxiety, so wherever you are vulnerable to anxiety, doomscrolling can become an unhealthy coping mechanism,” says clinical psychologist and researcher Megan E. Johnson.
Increased anxiety from doomscrolling is also sometimes called “headline stress disorder.” Headline stress disorder and doomscrolling probably disproportionately affect a small percent of the population. It makes sense that those who are more susceptible to anxiety would be more affected by its dangers.
Negativity biases’ role in doomscrolling
Nowadays, journalists and news stations tend to hyper-focus on negative news, sensationalizing it to the maximum possible extent. Why? Because that’s what gets clicks. I’ve written on negativity bias in media and how we can combat cynicism and irrational pessimism.
This interesting video essay compares today’s news with old clips from the “golden age” of journalism represented by Walter Cronkite (though even he had his controversy in reporting about Vietnam). He upheld the highest standards of objectivity and people called him the “most trusted man in America.” Of course, news has always included some kind of bias, even if only because journalists have to choose what to report to begin with. But, notably, the news didn’t sensationalize politics nearly as much as it does now.
David French talks about the negative political bias. This recent shift has more to do with opposing “them” rather than being positively for something. In other words, vote Democrat because Republicans are out to get you. Vote Republican because Democrats are out to get you.
This is affiliation based on fear rather than real issues. And this kind of negativity seems to be ramping up even more, not less. While bad news can deal purely with non-political, tragic events like the Boston bombing, it often deals with politically charged matters.
A word of encouragement
Something comforting I found was the precedent of past technology. When the printing press was invented, within one hundred years it was used for what we might call “fake news.” When the radio was invented, one woman divorced her husband on grounds of “radio mania,” alleging that he was addicted to his radio. Soon after TVs became commonplace in America, the chairman of the FCC in 1961 called it a “vast wasteland.” The internet quickly became a black market and led to easily accessible pornography.
When new technology emerges, people abuse it. This is not encouraging, except that humans eventually adapted to radio and the printing press pretty well. It seems that we’re still adjusting to TV and the internet. That doesn’t mean we should blindly pursue progress and “figure it out later.”
Rather, it’s a word of comfort that we can mitigate the consequences of our media addiction by reflecting on the real benefits and dangers it brings.
Three steps to avoiding overload
Several newsletters and sources present only neutral information about the news. Others, like AllSides, actively point out media bias. Although I’m neck-deep in the news every day due to my job, if I wasn’t writing in this space I would follow these three steps:
- Sign up for Dr. Jim Denison’s Daily Article (of course).
- Sign up for a politically neutral newsletter or two.
- Check the news once, maybe twice in my day, then move on. If an issue is important and interests me, I would do some more research—reading whole articles and not just skimming headlines.
“Rather than attempting to gather all the information, it is healthier to recognize that this is impossible, and instead embrace a new idea of what enough information means,” Johnson says (her emphasis). So, we need to limit the amount of information to what keeps us informed without overloading us with angst.
What does the Bible say about overload?
As Dr. Denison noted in “Uvalde pastor shot at by gunman,” “To experience God’s healing for our ‘land,’ first we must humble ourselves and admit how much we need what only he can do.” We need to remember to “humbly walk with God,” knowing that we must “do justice” and “love kindness” (Micah 6:8).
While Jesus tasked us with bringing the kingdom of God to earth as best we can, we know that, ultimately, he will return and fully establish his kingdom on earth. All the bad news in the world is indeed bad. We don’t need to ignore it or sweep it under a rug. But we can escape the clutches of despair through our hope in Christ.
“But we have this treasure [knowledge of God] in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:7–8). God is our rock and our fortress (Psalm 18:2).
In Recovering Our Sanity, Michael Horton argues that a fear of the Lord will subdue our irrational fears, which will allow us to live in true peace. If we fear the Lord in his majesty, power, and glory, the fears of this world will pale in comparison.
Doomscrolling feeds our brain the illusion of control, so will you join me today by handing that control over to the Lord?