Beware the health dangers of ‘doomscrolling’

Almost twelves weeks have passed since July 4th, the Super Saturday unlocking of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers. But now, it seems, the brief window of optimism may be closed again and a gloomy uncertainty reigns.

At least in the depths of lockdown, the advice was clear. We understood our instructions. These days, it all feels confusing and contradictory. Dare we book a holiday? Will our kids remain in school? Has the “second wave” engulfed us yet, or is it still swelling on the horizon?

Much of this is down to apocalyptic information spread by social media, and an internet full of contradictory advice. There’s even a new word for our addictive consumption of the above: “Doomscrolling” (defined in the Urban Dictionary as “when you keep scrolling through your social media feeds, looking for the most recent upsetting news about the latest catastrophe. The amount of time spent doing this is directly proportional to how much worse you’re going to feel after you’re done.”)

Mike Ward is the owner of the London and Hampshire Anxiety Clinic, and a trained counsellor in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the treatment of trauma. “The Covid lockdown was a shock for everyone,” he says. “It has challenged every level of society – in many different ways – from losing a relative, forfeiting your job, to understandable fears about one’s own health. People are feeling a lack of certainty, a lack of control. And when they are not getting information from the government, they turn to the media in a desperate search for clarity.”

But the so-called “Google gamble” of online content can cause yet more anxiety, says Ward.

Dr Charlie Easmon, a medic who specialises in public health, agrees. “Getting hit with bad news every day is like suffering a blunt force trauma to the head,” he says. “If one of the Marx brothers was your doctor, his prescription would not surprisingly be to stop hitting your head against a brick wall. The problem is now our phones and the internet.”

Adds Dr Easmon: “Twitter and related social media have algorithms, which are more likely to accentuate the scary stories.”

He uses as an example the “Explore” option on Instagram. Even while viewing a photo of someone’s dog, you are invited to engage in stories – often alarming – that everyone else is following.

“As humans we have a natural tendency to pay more attention to negative news,” says Mesfin Bekalu, a research scientist at Harvard’s T.H Chan School of Public Health. “Since the 1970s, we’ve known of ‘mean world syndrome’, the belief that the world is a more dangerous place to live in that it actually is.” Fifty years ago, this was down to violent TV shows. Now, it’s the dark, untrammelled expanse of the internet.

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