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Monday, February 26, 2024

How We’re Fighting Back Against Doomscrolling

Doomscrolling—everybody's doing it! You’re lying in bed, on your phone, trying to fall asleep, but then you end up staying awake for hours as your social media timeline fills you with anger and anxiety. This isn't just your garden-variety FOMO either. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and it can feel like there's a fresh new calamity or setback every single day. Add displays of collective grief over racial injustice to the mix, and it can be even harder to look away. So how do you stay informed without growing enraged? How do you stay connected without spiraling into despair?

This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED senior editor Angela Watercutter joins us to talk about our shifting relationships with social media and how we’re dialing back the doomscrolling.

Show Notes

Read Angela’s story about how doomscrolling is eroding your mental health here. Read more about digital well-being tools on Android phones here, and find all of WIRED’s suggestions and coverage of digital wellness here. Find Ram Dass’ Here and Now podcast here. Our guide to the best Kindles is here.


Angela recommends I May Destroy You on HBO. Lauren recommends The Netflix Effect: Land of the Giants by Recode/Vox. Mike recommends the music of Ennio Morricone and that you read John Zorn’s obituary of Morricone in The New York Times.

Angela Watercutter can be found on Twitter @WaterSlicer. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

If you have feedback about the show, or just want to enter to win a $50 gift card, take our brief listener survey here.

How to Listen

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[Intro theme music]

Lauren Goode: Hi, everyone, welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED, and I am joined by my cohost, WIRED senior editor Michael Calore. Hi, Mike.

Michael Calore: Aloha. Hi, how are you?

LG: Hi. Aloha? Are you in Hawaii this week?

MC: It's a state of mind. It's like Margaritaville. It's anywhere you want it to be.

LG: I have to take that into consideration since we're not going many places this summer. We're also joined this week by WIRED senior editor Angela Watercutter, who, I just found out, despite the fact that she has been at WIRED for many years and is one of our very esteemed colleagues, this is your first time on the Gadget Lab?

Angela Watercutter: Yes, yes. Hi everybody. I am both a Gadget Lab virgin and an aspiring parrot-head in these times of wishing I was in Hawaii. So.

LG: I really can't believe that we haven't had you on yet, but I'm glad we're remedying the situation.

AW: I'm available anytime. I have more free time now than I normally would.

LG: We can't promise remedies for everything these days, but we can have Angela on the podcast more. All right, today we're talking about something you are probably all very familiar with by now. It's called doomscrolling. I'm laughing when I say it, but it's not funny. OK, maybe you didn't realize that's what it's called, but that's what we're calling it. It's that thing where you just stare at social media, you're constantly refreshing and scrolling. You're unable to tear yourself away from whatever fresh hell the world has cooked up in the past hour or two, and then suddenly it's 2 in the morning and you're so filled with anxiety that you can't sleep. Angela wrote a story about this for WIRED.com recently, and so we brought her on to solve all of our problems around doomscrolling in about 30 minutes. Is that correct?

AW: Yeah. Again, we make no promises of cures here on the Gadget Lab podcast, I've been told, but I will do my best.

LG: OK. So take us through why this is such a common coping mechanism right now.

AW: I think it's just a matter of, we feel like if we keep looking at the news and keep searching, there will be an answer, that there is some yellow brick road on Twitter that leads us to some better outcome. At least this is what is happens with me. I kind of keep scrolling and think eventually I'll see some good news or some sort of something else. The things that I normally would go to social media for, I still keep going, but then you just kind of keep finding more and more, for lack of a better term, bad information or sad information. Then, once that starts, you kind of can't stop going down that completely different, but entirely distinct and less optimistic looking rabbit hole.

LG: How is this different from our normal addiction to social media?

AW: We generally talk about social media addiction in the sense of like a FOMO kind of thing. In what I call the before times, before quarantines kind of set in around late February, early March, those of us who really went down these social media rabbit holes were checking our friends' Instagrams and seeing a party we missed or a dinner we didn't get to make it to or something, or we're following celebrities or keeping up with whatever, the sort of Twitter argument of the day is. There was news of course. Obviously we keep up with social media because we want to just keep up with what's going on in the world, but I think over the last five or six months, that's really kind of evolved.

Now, we're sort of diving in again and getting into this onslaught of information. At the beginning of the quarantine, obviously, back in March, it was coronavirus infection rates and what state was having a new hot spot and should I wear a mask, should I not wear a mask? All of these sort of things that were in the news every day. By the way, wear masks. And then a few months later, with the death of George Floyd, there was just so much more information about protests and videos of police brutality and things like that, and so it just became something that we were going to in a different way. I think that's where the shift came. It used to be some bad news and then some puppy videos, but now it's just a lot of … not even not necessarily bad news, but just hard-to-take news, traumatic news, things that normally kind of get broken up with other pieces of information, where now it's ust traumatic to consume on a consistent daily basis.

MC: So you're scrolling and scrolling, and you keep seeing bad news, and you keep scrolling because you're convincing yourself that you are eventually going to encounter some good news or maybe find some sort of resolution. In the people you talked to for this story, what did they tell you is going on in your brain when you're scrolling?

AW: Yeah. It's a strange thing. I guess the addiction part of it is mostly us, I think, that it's … in a weird way, we could stop, but it's hard to fight that. But, yeah, I think a lot of it too isn't necessarily even in our own brains. One of the folks I talked to researched social media and information tactics, and the thing is, the more we look at these things on social media, the more that social media knows to push them into our feeds. So there's a cycle that happens there too. If you are doomscrolling, Twitter and Facebook are going to feed you more things to doomscroll. So you have to be aware of that.

Another thing one of the researchers told me is that it kind of puts you in this head space. It's something we've known about basically since the days of television, which is like, you get convinced that the world is actually worse than it really is. By constantly scrolling through these things, it reinforces that. The actual concept, I just looked it up, is the Mean World Syndrome. It started back in the '70s. You would watch a police procedural or something like that and start thinking that everyone was a mugger and terrible things were happening around every corner—which is actually not as true as people think if they just constantly consume troubling information.

LG: That's a really interesting concept, that you'd see the world as more dangerous than it actually is, because of the kind of information you're being inundated with.

AW: Right. Well, and the flip side of that, though—and this is something I talked to another academic about—is that one of the beneficial things about social media is that it's brought things to people's attention in a way that wasn't possible before. People were able to, sadly, film police brutality, and it could be shared in a certain way. They brought it to more national attention than it would have had before. But the flip side of that is that it's also a means of sharing a lot of very traumatic images in ways that could be damaging.

LG: Mike, what do you make of this?

MC: Well, the thing that's occurred to me over the last five months now … four months? I don't know. I can't even remember. Seeing those traumatic images really sunk in when Instagram took a dark turn, because for a very long time, no matter how bad the world was, no matter how bad the news was on Twitter or on Facebook or on the news app or the front page of the newspaper, you were always able to go to Instagram, and Instagram was a happy place. It was like people on the beach, people posting pictures of their kids or their pets or the beautiful environment they were vacationing in. Then it slowly started to turn, because people started dying, and you saw tributes being posted on Instagram. People started losing their jobs, and my Instagram feed got taken over with GoFundme's for medical expenses. A lot of my friends work at bars and restaurants, and they were all of a sudden out of work, and it started to darken the mood on Instagram.

Then, when the Black Lives Matter protests started rolling out all over the country, those images were uplifting, but there was also an element of sorrow in those images, because of what those images represented. They represented the racism and the killing andall of this pain and grief. So Instagram has transformed from a happy place to another one of those reminders of how bad the world is—whether it actually is or whether that's just our perception of it. So I'm sort of left wondering, when I open my phone, where's the happy place? Where do I go? I'm just sort of blindly poking around on Reddit these days.

LG: Mm-hmm, and you're not into TikTok yet. You're not a TikToker, Mike.

MC: I'm far too old for TikTok.

LG: Yeah, you bring up a good point, Mike, which is that social media is now being filled with more and more calls to action. Particularly Instagram, I'm noticing more of this, whether it's donating to a cause or acknowledging some form of social inequality and calling for justice, or suggesting a reading list to someone, or just calling attention to somebody who might be in need in your local community. You really love to see it, and I say that genuinely, but it also means that social media has become less of a passive experience, right? Because you're being prompted to do things, or you want to do things because it gives you this sense of control in a world in which we have no control right now, or a sense of somehow contributing to a solution to all of these crises that we're facing, all at the same time.

So there's that stimulation that's happening in your brain that we've heard about for a long time when you're on social media. It's a kind of stimulation that you're not fully aware of. That's still happening, but now there's this very overt messaging on social media. There's a very overt stimulation that you should try to help your community more. I think that can be a very positive thing, but I also think it means, more than ever, we need to create some guardrails for ourselves around social media, like, "OK, this is the hour that I'm going to check it and spend time on it, and maybe during that hour, I might be inspired to go take another action in some way, which is good, but I'm not just going to scroll social media for three hours and feel totally overwhelmed," which admittedly, I feel a lot of the time.

MC: Yeah. That doesn't always work though, because we're in an environment … we're news reporters, we're sharing Twitter messages with each other all the time, like in Slack, and Twitter is part of our job. I get sucked into doomscrolling at 10 in the morning, and then again at 1:30 in the afternoon, and then again at dinner. It just like … it keeps coming back to you. The bad news never stops.

AW: One of the other researchers I talked to, a woman named Alissa Richardson at USC's Annenberg School, she did a book recently called Bearing Witness While Black, that was sort of looking at activism in the black community. A lot of the activists she spoke to said that they don't really doomscroll, because obviously they'd been seeing these images their whole lives, and so for them, that had been their life, and they just couldn't keep going back to seeing those sort of terrible images over and over and over again. But the thing she pointed out was that for a lot of folks, then, the inverse happened and they started participating in things like the versus battles on Instagram—like Erykah Badu and Jill Scott having a sing-off battle on Instagram. So in that case, for certain folks, it became this place to participate in acts of black joy and use that as an act of resistance. So it depends on where you come at it from, in terms of where you draw those lines and put up those guardrails about like, this is my space to do X and this is my space to do Y.

LG: Absolutely, and what I'm hearing you say as I'm listening to you is actually, what this maybe underscores for a lot of people is just how privileged our social media experience was before this time. That for a lot of us, what we got to see were photos of pets and beach vacations, and we didn't realize that that was a reflection of the world we lived in and how privileged that was.

AW: Yeah. Yeah. And in a way, I guess for lack of a better term, the ability to doomscroll is itself an act of privilege. It is something that you can opt into, whereas for some people it's a more steady reality that they can't just turn down their phone and say, "Well, I don't have to look at that anymore."

LG: Right. All right, we're going to take a quick break and then come back with hopefully some guidance on how we can cut down on the bad kind of doomscrolling,


LG: Welcome back. All right. Doomscrolling can be a hard cycle to break, and you might say, "I'll just delete the apps from my phone," but then you might miss critical news updates or things happening with friends and family, or just become a little less aware of the important stuff happening in the world around you. So to figure this out, we've assembled our team of expert doomscrollers here on the Gadget Lab—and by that, I mean us. So we're going to go around and say how we've managed to keep the doomscrolling at bay. Angela, what's your tactic?

AW: The short answer is, I don't think I actually have found a way to stop doomscrolling. I deactivated Facebook at one point, but I was still getting notifications, so either I didn't do the deactivation correctly or Facebook found me anyway—which wouldn't be that surprising, to be honest. So it was telling me about photos that I had been tagged in, and then I would log on, and the cycle would continue. I did find out that my barber came back to town, so I will be getting a haircut, so maybe that was a good outcome of that particular reactivation. But I have now re-deactivated—that sounds right—re-deactivated my account, so I'm at least off Facebook. But yeah, Twitter and Instagram, I kind of can't stop, simply because, like you said, we're journalists. We work in news.

There is a little bit of that FOMO of just like, we might miss something that we need to know about, but I have tried to set a few better boundaries of like "It's midnight. Anything now can wait until the morning" or whatever it happens to be. I also close my laptop on weekends. It doesn't stop me from using my phone, but it does at least cut down a little bit of my screen time. Locks help, but that's about it. Mike, have you done anything to limit this any better than I am?

MC: I have, and I think part of it is just because of the shelter-in-place. A lot of my habits have changed, but in particular, news consumption habits. I've taken, like actively taken, steps over the last few weeks to trim back how much time I'm spending looking at things on my phone. The big one for me, I'm an Android user, so I have the digital well-being tools that are built into Android on my phone, so I can set app timers. I can set bedtime mode, which is really helpful. The app timers—at first, it was like I was just wasting so much time in Instagram, so I set a 30-minute time limit on Instagram per day, and I set a 90-minute time limit on Twitter per day, which I was hitting regularly. It's sad to think about that, but I was an hour and a half a day on my phone just looking at Twitter. I trimmed that back to 30 minutes, so I have 30 minutes for Instagram and 30 minutes for Twitter, and it's really helped. Even if I hit them before lunch, that's fine. That means I don't look at them in the evening.

The other thing I've been doing is, I've gotten more into my Kindle in the evenings, because when you're holding a Kindle and you're reading, it satisfies that itch of holding an electronic screen in your hand and looking at it, so you don't feel the urge to look at your phone. It sort of tricks your brain into thinking, "OK, I am looking at a screen, so everything's going to be OK. I'm in my happy place." I realize how backwards and sad this all sounds as I'm saying it, but these are how you break bad habits, right? So I've been reading more, especially in the evenings.

Then the last thing that I've done is sort of curated my audio consumption with podcasts. I could just listen to bad news podcasts all the time, but I limit myself to one a day, and then I spend the other hour or half hour listening to something else, like an interview with a musician or a Ram Dass lecture. I've been listening to a lot of those recently, which has been very healing.

LG: Mike, those are all really good solutions, and I love how specific they are. I feel like our show notes will just be an entire graph of Mike recommending these very specific things for you to do step by step to stop doomscrolling, and if that doesn't work we throw our hands up because we can't help you.

MC: It's also what Angela was just saying, which is that it's all about willpower and about recognizing the bad habit and then trying to change it. And your brain chemistry is going to try to prevent you from changing it, so you have work to do.

LG: Right.

MC: What have you been doing, Lauren?

LG: Well, I haven't done a very good job of curbing my doomscrolling habit. So, to solve this, I went to the source of all doomscrolling darkness for me. The other day, I went to Twitter and I asked people on Twitter if they had come up with any good solutions to this problem, so I'm going to share some of what people told me on the social media platform.

MC: Nice.

LG: One of the more popular suggestions came from some guy named Walt Mossberg. Does anyone know movies?

AW: Hmm.

MC: (Laughs) Don't be coy.

LG: Yes. Walt is my former boss and a dear friend and mentor. He says, "Watch old TV comedies you like, and either keep the phone out of reach or ration your phone use." So the common thread line I found with many of these suggestions, Mike, is what you were suggesting, is that people weren't saying get rid of screens. They were suggesting diversions on the screens. There were lots of votes for Kindle, so you can read but not be tempted to scroll social media. Someone chimed in and said, "Try doom-bingeing on Netflix instead." That was Melanie Ensign. So you're still watching a screen, but instead you're watching Netflix. Nicole Nguyen, who we know from The Wall Street Journal, said, "Try joy-scrolling through pre-Covid camera roll," and then it had a crying face emoji.

MC: Yikes.

LG: So you're still on your screens, but maybe you are doing something that feels a little bit more joyful from the before times. Other people, though, did have kind of a more severe approach—like Cecilia D'Anastasio from our team said, "I deleted Twitter off my phone, and it has done wonders." Nick Thompson, our editor in chief, replied and said, "Same," so I think this means we have official permission from Nick to not be on Twitter, if I understand that correctly. Our colleague, Kara Platoni, said, "You have to hide one and only one of these things under the bed: (1) phone, or (2) yourself." So just throw yourself under the bed if you can't get away from screens.

Then another person, Simone Giertz, who happened to be on our WIRED cover in January of this year, said, "Text me and ask me to tell you to stop." She said in a follow-up tweet that that has worked for her, that when she texts people and says, "Please tell me to stop scrolling," and then someone says, "Stop scrolling," she does. Maybe at that point you have a conversation with a friend instead of doomscrolling on Twitter or Instagram or anywhere else. So, those were just some solutions I crowdsourced from the internet and honestly, they all sound better than doomscrolling. I would even take doom-bingeing on Netflix over doomscrolling, so maybe I need to try some of these.

AW: Well, and to speak to that, having a friend text you to stop. I do have to give credit to Karen Ho, a reporter at Quartz who was one of the inspirations behind this piece, because every night at about … I usually see it at 11 pm, midnight my time, but I'm not sure exactly when she sends it out, because now Twitter shoots things back up, up and forth, but she just tweets around sleep time every night, "Hey, are you doomscrolling?" I see that in my feed and I'm like, "Thank you, Karen. Appreciate that," and then I look for another 10 to 15 and then I put my phone down.

LG: That's a good friend.

AW: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LG: All right, we're going to take another quick break, when we come back, we're going to do recommendations that may … quite honestly, may put you back on screens. We'll be right back.


LG: Time for recommendations, Angela, what's yours this week?

AW: So mine is the HBO series I May Destroy You. The creator, writer, director, show runner, star, genius extraordinaire, Michaela Coel, she's somebody I've loved since she had a show called Chewing Gum that was originally in the UK and then landed on Netflix a couple of years ago. But her new show, I May Destroy You, is just so smart and raw, and it's kind of this unblinking look at a young woman putting together the pieces of the night that she was drugged and sexually assaulted. It kind of does this unlinear thing of going back and forth in time, and having you sort of learn things as she remembers them and as she deals with them. It's just so well written and really extremely, extremely well done. To the point of the entire discussion we've had so far, there are times when it is hard to watch, but I think it's hard to watch in a way that a lot of people need to see. So yeah. There was a great profile of her in New York Magazine, so if you want to know more about how she came up with the show and how she brought it to life, it's a really good read. Apparently Netflix offered her a million dollars, and she said no, because they wouldn't give her enough creative control.

LG: That is on my watch list for this weekend for sure, both I May Destroy You and Chewing Gum. Mike, what's yours?

MC: I want to recommend that you explore the rich musical world of Ennio Morricone. He's an Italian film composer. He died this week at the age of 91. You know his work, because he scored a lot of stuff from the early '60s until the present day. Most people know him as the guy who wrote the theme song to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and all of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. He also did some of Sergio Leone's other movies and Quentin Tarantino and Dario Argento. You've seen a movie with an Ennio Morricone score. He is just a brilliant composer, and I've been a fan of working to his music for many years.

If you go on any streaming service, there are playlists that are curated for specific moods. There's the Morricone love collection. There's the Morricone Western collection. There's the gangster collection. There's one that's called Morricone work from home, which is kind of fun, because it's not soothing work music. It's a lot of rambunctious, playful music, but there's always a song of his to fit the mood. His music is a big mix of avant-garde and pop and serious, weighty, emotional music. It jumps around a lot. It's kind of hard to pick an album or a soundtrack that's the same all the way through, but there's a lot of people who have curated their own Morricone playlists on places like Apple music and Spotify and even on YouTube. So I would recommend that you go and give it a shot. If you're working at home, if you're in a mood to write, or if you're drawing or if you just want to be productive, there's a Morricone soundtrack for your activity. I'd also recommend that you go to The New York Times and read the appreciation of Morricone that was written by John Zorn, another great modern-day composer, who has a lot in common with him. So yeah, that's my recommendation. Get into the Italian soundtrack master.

AW: Can I share one more kind of story?

MC: Yeah, please.

AW: I remember when Quentin Tarantino did a panel at Comic-Con a couple of years ago for the Hateful Eight, and at the very end dropped this bomb that Morricone was going to do the score for that film. It was Holiday, which was the biggest hall at Comic-Con, and the place went nuts. I'm like, this is normally how it sounds when Robert Downey Jr. walks out in an Iron Man mask, you know? It was like that thing where you think that maybe people know Morricone and maybe people don't, but if that many sci-fi and comic book fans go crazy over his work, you just know how far it reaches. Also, maybe when Tarantino yells something, you just feel compelled to do something because it's scary, but yeah, I just … it is amazing how much his work is appreciated across the board.

MC: Yeah, well, rest in peace, Ennio Morricone.

AW: Yeah, absolutely.

MC: What's on your playlist, Lauren?

LG: This week I'm recommending The Netflix Effect, part of the Land of the Giants podcast series created by Recode and Vox. This is a series that's all about the history of Netflix. It is led by Recode editors Peter Kafka and Rani Molla. I've listened to two episodes so far. I believe that three or four episodes are available in the feed, but they're planning on doing a couple more, so it's really a miniseries. I think there'll be like five to seven episodes total when all is said and done, but it's a really, really great narrative show about Netflix and how much Netflix has changed our media and video streaming world. The first episode was all about the infamous Netflix work culture. They operate under this kind of radical transparency. It's an incredibly tough work environment, it feels like, where colleagues are constantly supposed to offer constructive criticism to each other, and if it's determined that you're just no longer working as a member of the team, you are just unceremoniously fired. But at the same time, people seem to enjoy working there, some people do. They feel like they're part of this bigger mission in a way, which is really interesting.

The second episode is all about Netflix versus Blockbuster in the early days, for those of you who remember Blockbuster. Also an excellent episode, and I'm just starting to dive into episode three. So yeah, I recommend it if you're looking for a diversion from doomscrolling. The Netflix Effect, part of the Land of the Giants podcast series by Recode and Vox.

MC: So, with Land of the Giants, this is the one … They did Amazon last year, right?

LG: Correct. In fact, we had Jason Del Rey, who did the Amazon one, on Gadget Lab last year. I should know it. I also used to work for Recode, so I consider folks like Jason and Peter and Rani friends. They've been on our show, and we may have Peter on in the future to talk about Netflix. So, yeah, consider my bias there, I guess. I used to work for Recode, but I really enjoy this podcast.

MC: Noted.

LG: All right. That's our show for this week. Angela, thank you so much for joining us.

AW: Thank you for having me.

LG: And thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter, where we will be doomscrolling. Just check the show notes for our Twitter handles. The show is produced by the excellent Boone Ashworth. Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman. Bye for now, and we'll be back next week.

[End theme music]

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