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This year I have learned the secret of time travel. It goes like this: I open my eyes first thing and reach for my phone, checking the news and social media for the latest apocalyptic updates; words and images flash by in seconds, screaming BREAKING NEWS, INFECTION, OUTBREAK, DEATH TOLL. I scroll, refresh, reload. I close and open, share, type, delete, reply, all in a sort of semi-conscious fugue. And then, like some sort of modern-day Kaspar Hauser in tracksuit bottoms, I emerge blinking from the darkened cell of the internet and it is 5pm, and I am thinking: “Where the hell did this day go?” Twitter is a cosmic string and I’ve been pulled along with it until, beyond the windows, the light fades into night.
What I’ve been doing is called doomscrolling, a term that has caught on during this year’s pandemic. For those who still dwell mostly offline, doomscrolling (and, less commonly, doomsurfing) is “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing”.
There’s a compulsiveness to doomscrolling. We are looking for something, even though we are not sure exactly what it is (reassurance? Truth? Validation? Answers? A vaccine?). Some of us are, perhaps, in fight-or-flight mode, and the constant scrolling is a kind of hypervigilance. Certainly many of us are in an anxiety spiral. In her upcoming pocket essay, Radical Attention, Julia Bell writes: “Over time, trained by the software, the user … oscillates between anxiety and the alleviation of that anxiety, over and over, and bouncing between those positions makes it impossible to think.
“We are imprisoned by reactive, primitive brain activity,” she continues. “anxiety, self-defence, pleasure, rage, fear. Our executive functions become permanently fritzed. Smombies [smartphone zombies] just scrolling through pages of information, waiting for a reaction.”
We are surrounded by so much bad news, and then so many “takes” on that news, that we can experience a loss of affect. I sometimes wonder if I am scrolling just in the hope of feeling something, although when I do it is invariably bad. And then the next story comes along, before I have had time to process the last.
Patricia Lockwood, who probably writes more vividly and accurately about the internet than anyone else, sums it up in her forthcoming novel No One Is Talking About This. Referencing a 2013 Guardian article, “Experience: I was swallowed by a hippo”, she writes: “A few years ago, she thought, that story would have caused a sensation. It would have been all anybody talked about for weeks: the sudden breach, the tooth of a new reality agitating the rib cage, the greeny-black smell of being lost in some ultimate aquarium. But now they had all been swallowed by a hippo. Big deal.”
In times of uncertainty, it’s normal to want answers (“Google: are hippos carnivores?”). Millions of us are doomscrolling in isolation, robbed of the collective sense-making on which we usually rely. Conspiracy theories flourish. Experts warn of the strain that doomscrolling can put on mental health. We flick, over and over, between apps that claim to help us “live in the moment” and the latest headlines.
The media has always reported more bad news than good (“if it bleeds, it leads”). Rapidly unfolding stories are more bad than good; progress, meanwhile, is plodding. In a crisis, it plays a crucial role in keeping us informed. My grandmother listens to or watches the news every morning, noon, and night, and I have often wondered if her craving for information is the legacy of a war childhood, in which one lived with the constant threat of death and disaster (I also think, in another life, she would have made a fine journalist). Perhaps doomscrolling will be our legacy. I hope not.
Readers have a tendency to pay more attention to negative news, and this can warp our worldviews. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that a shift in perspective is needed, and that we need to try not to overlook the astonishing progress that humanity has made in terms of health, wealth and happiness. The recent Hidden Brain podcast, Beyond Doomscrolling, on which Pinker appears, is a lesson in finding solace in data. For instance, he cites the statistic that, in the last 30 years, there has been a 75% reduction in the proportion of the people in the world that live in extreme poverty.
Negative thinking can have its benefits, but Pinker’s method is a necessary redressing of the balance. For catastrophists, data can be comforting. A period in which I became terrified of flying was helped by an app called Am I Going Down?, which would tell you the statistical likelihood of the plane crashing (“You’d expect this flight to go down if you took this flight every day for 12, 456 years”).
There will never be an article for every flight that lands safely, nor should there be, but it’s encouraging that more and more outlets are running positive or constructive news stories, such as the Guardian’s section The Upside. For me, it’s also about looking for stories that contain that important ingredient that is so necessary for all our survival: hope.
For Julia Bell, “being totally present with ourselves, and with each other, is an active form of hope”. She proposes that attention is a radical line of defence, writing that “attention to the body, and by extension to the planet … allows us to reconnect to the parts of ourselves that have been outsourced to the screen”. I’m going to try it. And if that fails, there are always cat photos.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author
Source: The Guardian
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