Doomscrolling, Anxiety & Your Mental Health:
Today I’m talking about screen use, social media consumption and how it links to your mental health, particularly in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
I don’t know about you but sometimes I have a terrible habit of having a quick check of what’s happening on things like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Perhaps between tasks or when I feel like I need a break I take a quick look at the latest (even though plenty of it is neither interesting or helpful!). And I don’t think that there is too much wrong with social media and smartphones and the like in general and if used constructively and purposefully. However, there is a flip side to screen time and social media consumption that can impact on your mental health and can contribute to anxiety.
Anxiety, with all of it’s unwanted thoughts and feelings, can lead you to spend more time online, whether as an escape from those feelings or seeking more and more information. As you worry about worst case scenarios and things that could happen, you can find yourself consuming more and more negative information as you try and find a sense of calmness, safety and certainty. And with the coronavirus, there is a mass of information out there, some more accurate than others, and in seeking information, knowledge and certainty (in an uncertain pandemic) you may find yourself spending more time online and more time consuming negative news and opinions.
It can seem like your anxiety compels you to check more and more negative news on social media and from other sources, and whilst a part of you might hope to find clarity and certainty about what is going to happen, the scrolling and negativity can just add more fuel to your anxious thoughts and feelings.
Doomscrolling refers to this compulsion to consume negative news on social media. And whilst as a concept it goes back before the pandemic, in recent weeks and months the coronavirus has made it more prevalent and more something we all need to pay attention to.
Social Media, Smartphone and Mental Health
Even before the current pandemic there was emerging evidence that social media consumption and smart phone use can have detrimental impacts upon our mental health and well-being.
We use our tablets and smartphones for just about everything these days. There are our constant companions wherever we go.
All that knowledge and technology and the resources we carry in our pocket can be amazingly useful and can improve our lives in a myriad of ways. You can manage your diary, check the news, weather and sport, pay a bill, hear a song, watch a video and a ton more at the press of a few buttons. And social media like Facebook and Twitter can keep you up to date on things you are interested in or what is going on in the world. You can stay connected with friends and share photos and updates and there is certainly a beneficial role for all of this whilst social interactions are restricted during the pandemic.
However, there are downsides too. I’ve written before about some of the research into cell phone addiction that can impact on your mental health and lead to sleep disturbance, stress and anxiety. Problematic smartphone use can give rise to problems that increasingly affect daily life, such as use in dangerous situations or prohibited contexts, loss of interest in other activities, repeated interruptions, periods of insomnia and sleep disturbance and feelings of irritability, anxiety and loneliness if separated from your phone
Research suggests that depression, anxiety and sleep quality may be associated with smartphone overuse. Smartphone overuse may lead to depression and/or anxiety, which can in turn result in sleep problems (read more about cell phone addiction and this research here: Is Cell Phone Addiction a Thing? Smartphone Use, Sleep, Anxiety & Depression).
Excessive use of your smartphone can lead to something called ‘nomophobia’, which refers to the anxiety, discomfort, and stress caused to someone when they do not have their smartphone readily available to them.
Gonçalves, Dias & Correia, (Nomophobia and lifestyle: Smartphone use and its relationship to psychopathologies, 2020) describe how nomophobia is a fear of staying away from one’s smartphone and being without an internet connection. It involves an irrational fear of leaving home without a smartphone, and anxiety when they lose it, run out of battery power or have no network coverage. There can be a constant need to be aware of what others are doing and it can particularly be related to people who have a predisposition to anxiety disorders. Issues such as low self-esteem, social anxiety and a lack of self-confidence also seem to be linked to this dependence,
We also know there are other issues such as phantom vibration syndrome, where you perceive vibrations from a device that is not really vibrating at all. There can also be impacts on information retention and your ability to focus. Just receiving a phone notification can impact on your attention and focus and that distraction can be enough to impact on your performance, even if you do not interact with your phone, In fact, the research suggest that even just having your phone present, whether you have it face up or face down, on silent or switched off, can still impact on your focus, attention and cognitive performance )for more on this research go here: Smartphone Addiction: The Impact Of Your Phone On Your Focus, Attention and Performance).
Social Media, Anxiety & Depression
So how does social media use impact upon you mental health, anxiety and depression.
Research by Hunt et al (No more FOMO: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression, 2018), found that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being. In their study, both depression symptoms and loneliness declined from limiting social media use. There was also a significant decline in both fear of missing out and anxiety.
“The results from our experiment strongly suggest that limiting social media usage does have a direct and positive impact on subjective well-being over time, especially with respect to decreasing loneliness and depression…It is ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that reducing social media, which promised to help us connect with others, actually helps people feel less lonely and depressed.”
It is also possible to get ‘social media fatigue; where social media users suffer from mental exhaustion after experiencing a sense of information and communication overload through being on and interacting with different social media platforms. Dhir et al (Online social media fatigue and psychological well-being—A study of compulsive use, fear of missing out, fatigue, anxiety and depression, 2018), found that compulsive media use significantly triggered social media fatigue, which later result in elevated anxiety and depression.
While increased social media use has been associated with depression and anxiety, Primack et al (Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among US young adults, 2017), looked at the role of using multiple social media networks. Using a sample of young adults they found that use of multiple social media platforms is strongly and independently associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, even when controlling for overall social media use.
As well as the mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression linked to social media, smartphones and screen time, there can also be other health impacts associated with the amount of screen time you spend on devices.
Vizcaino et al (From TVs to tablets: the relation between device-specific screen time and health-related behaviors and characteristics, 2020) found poorer dietary habits among individuals spending a significant portion of their day using a variety of screen-based devices (i.e. total screen time). although their research included all screens, including TV and devices, those who spent the most time on screens reported the least healthy dietary patterns, such as consuming fewer fruits/vegetables and the highest frequency of fast food consumption.
And so it seems pretty clear that, even before we delve into doomscrolling and coronavirus, that your social media and smartphone use can have pretty strong adverse impacts upon your mental health and well-being.
Doomscrolling, Anxiety and Covid-19
As mentioned above, doomscrolling refers to this compulsion to consume negative news on social media. Within the current uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and anxiety around it, you may find a desire to seek more and more information. Your brain tries to gather information around threat, safety and our need for certainty.
Yet all of that negative news can just exacerbate your anxiety and leave you feeling worse, yet still feeling the compulsion to check some more. And that’s even without going into the terrain of fake news, misinformation and conspiracy arguments, all of which can add to anxiety and fear.
Social media can be useful for sharing information and accurate content, however, as Paulsen and Fuller (Scrolling for data or doom during COVID-19? 2020) put it, “distinguishing between accurate and inaccurate information spread through social media can be difficult. This spread of misleading propaganda leads to fear, anxiety, and confusion.”
As the pandemic has spread and endured, so has the volume of information and the many inaccurate rumours, misleading information and conspiracy theories.
“Within weeks of the emergence of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in China, misleading rumours and conspiracy theories about the origin circulated the globe paired with fearmongering, racism and mass purchase of face masks, all closely linked to the new “infomedia” ecosystems of the 21st century marked by social media. A striking particularity of this crisis is the coincidence of virology and virality: not only did the virus itself spread very rapidly, but so did the information – and misinformation – about the outbreak, and thus the panic that it created among the public. The social media panic traveled faster than the COVID-19 spread” (Depoux et al. The pandemic of social media panic travels faster than the COVID-19 outbreak. 2020).
Whilst social media can be beneficial to help share accurate information and resources, doomscrolling can lead to encountering false or misleading news that exacerbates anxious thoughts and feelings and diminishes your sense of resilience and being able to cope. In addition to the inherent anxiety and worry of a pandemic, doomscrolling can lead to increased levels of anxiety and fear.
Evidence for the helpful versus unhelpful use of social media in relation to covid-19 comes from the very place it is considered to have arisen, Wuhan in China. As countless studies have now shown, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted on mental health.
Zhong, Huang, and Liu (Mental health toll from the coronavirus: Social media usage reveals Wuhan residents’ depression and secondary trauma in the COVID-19 outbreak, 2020) found that as the virus struck, social media use was beneficial to people in Wuhan as they gained informational, emotional and peer support from it. However, excessive use of social media led to mental health issues, such as depression. Their results imply that taking a social media break may promote well-being during the pandemic, which is crucial to mitigating mental health harm inflicted by the pandemic.
Further evidence for the relationship between media exposure and mental health issues comes from Bendau et al (Associations between COVID-19 related media consumption and symptoms of anxiety, depression and COVID-19 related fear in the general population in Germany, 2020).
“our findings provide some evidence for a problematical role of media exposure in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The frequency/duration of media European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 1 3 exploitation, type of media, the diversity of media usage as well as individual vulnerability might play an important role in the development of mental distress or might be a result of mental distress and therefore relevant in the perpetuation of mental distress.”
And, using a sample of college students, Huckins et al (Mental Health and Behavior During the Early Phases of the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Longitudinal Mobile Smartphone and Ecological Momentary Assessment Study in College Students) found that with increasing covid-19 related news, individuals showed increases in anxiety and depression
Thus your stress and anxiety levels can become elevated through your exposure to covid-19 media and this can potentially play a role in you developing mental health problems or it can exacerbate existing issues, such as anxiety and fear.
Doomscrolling, Anxiety & Mental Health
As anyone who suffers with anxiety can tell you, the ore anxious you are about something, the more your mind seems to think about it and to come up with all those worst case outcomes and things that could go badly or negatively. Your anxious brain latches onto that threat and hold tight to it.
And whilst some threats can be avoided or escaped from, there is no hiding from the impact of the coronavirus. Whilst anxiety seeks certainty and reassurance, with covid-19 there is none.
That can then lead to problematic smartphone/screen use that exacerbates or leads to issues such as poor sleep, anxiety and fear. It can also lead to doomscrolling where you feel compelled to keep checking social media for more information and the latest news. And with all the conspiracy theory and misinformation, combined with news about restrictions, death and illness, your anxiety levels can continue to remain high.
Social media can be a wonderfully positive thing. You cna share views and thoughts, keep abreast of the latest happenings and stay connected to others. There are plenty of ways it can support good mental health and well-being. However, on the flip side it can create or add to existing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
There is so much information about covid-19 out there, and over exposure to negative news or opinions, of things that are just all out fake news or fear mongering, can impact on your mental health and anxiety levels.
It therefore makes sense to take time away from the news, social media and your smartphone. Simply deliberately make this happen, or if you think that will prove a struggle, install a social media blocking app. When you do seek out news, make sure it is reliable and supported by evidence. And you should certainly invest time and energy in other strategies for dealing with stress and anxiety and supporting your mental health (many of which I’ve written about before).
Keeping the positives of social media and smartphones involves proactively managing what you look at and how much time you spend consuming it. The more you take steps to manage your anxiety and to limit your doomscrolling, the mentally healthier you can go through this pandemic over these coming weeks.
To your mental health and happiness,
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Bendau, A., Petzold, M.B., Pyrkosch, L., Maricic, L.M., Betzler, F., Rogoll, J., Große, J., Ströhle, A. and Plag, J., 2020. Associations between COVID-19 related media consumption and symptoms of anxiety, depression and COVID-19 related fear in the general population in Germany. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, pp.1-9.
BSD, R.P. and Wilder-Smith, A., The pandemic of social media panic travels faster than the COVID-19 outbreak.
Chao, M., Xue, D., Liu, T., Yang, H. and Hall, B.J., 2020. Media use and acute psychological outcomes during COVID-19 outbreak in China. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, p.102248.
Depoux, A., Martin, S., Karafillakis, E., Preet, R., Wilder-Smith, A. and Larson, H., 2020. The pandemic of social media panic travels faster than the COVID-19 outbreak.
Dhir, A., Yossatorn, Y., Kaur, P. and Chen, S., 2018. Online social media fatigue and psychological wellbeing—A study of compulsive use, fear of missing out, fatigue, anxiety and depression. International Journal of Information Management, 40, pp.141-152.
Gonçalves, S., Dias, P. and Correia, A.P., 2020. Nomophobia and lifestyle: Smartphone use and its relationship to psychopathologies. Computers in Human Behavior Reports, 2, p.100025.
Huckins, J., Hedlund, E.L., Rogers, C., Nepal, S.K., Wu, J., Obuchi, M., Murphy, E.I., Meyer, M.L., Wagner, D.D., Holtzheimer, P.E. and Campbell, A.T., 2020. Mental Health and Behavior During the Early Phases of the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Longitudinal Mobile Smartphone and Ecological Momentary Assessment Study in College Students.
Hunt, M.G., Marx, R., Lipson, C. and Young, J., 2018. No more FOMO: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 37(10), pp.751-768.
Paulsen, P. and Fuller, D., 2020. Scrolling for data or doom during COVID-19?. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 111(4), pp.490-491.
Primack, B.A., Shensa, A., Escobar-Viera, C.G., Barrett, E.L., Sidani, J.E., Colditz, J.B. and James, A.E., 2017. Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among US young adults. Computers in human behavior, 69, pp.1-9.
Vizcaino, M., Buman, M., DesRoches, T. and Wharton, C., 2020. From TVs to tablets: the relation between device-specific screen time and health-related behaviors and characteristics. BMC public health, 20(1), pp.1-10.
Zhong, B., Huang, Y. and Liu, Q., 2020. Mental health toll from the coronavirus: Social media usage reveals Wuhan residents’ depression and secondary trauma in the COVID-19 outbreak. Computers in human behavior, 114, p.106524.