Guilty of ‘Doomscrolling’? There’s a Scientific Reason Why You Search for Bad News

Did any of us even know what doomscrolling was before COVID-19?

In truth, the word itself has been floating around since about 2018 on Twitter, but became a universal term during the worst of the 2020 lockdowns in the coronavirus pandemic.

Doomscrolling (or doomsurfing), is described by Merriam-Webster as the “tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.”

I speak from personal experience when I say that doomscrolling can be somewhat addictive. It’s like our well-documented obsession with true crime; we always know something bad is going to happen, but we can’t look away and we have to know what happens even if we stay up all night watching and reading things that scare us.

For me, doomscrolling can be dangerous, especially when it’s illnesses-related. I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one that self-diagnoses myself via the internet, but sometimes when I read or watch something about a freak illness, I’ll starting worrying that I might develop the exact same thing.

The worrying never lasts for too long, but it’s always enough for me to do a quick Google of all the symptoms, the likelihood of it happening to someone of my age and genetic makeup before I have to put my phone down or watch a comedy special to distract myself.

If you can relate to this, you’re not alone. A new study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has found that doomscrolling has become a common habit since the beginning of COVID-19.

Additionally, the researchers have identified areas and cells in our brains that become active when we’re faced with the choice to “learn” or “hide” from information about an unwanted event that we have no power to prevent.

Although we’re lucky to live in a world that demands transparency and high volumes of information, sometimes, it can be overwhelming. Our phones allow us to keep up with the news by sending us notifications, which can often be really useful, but when the news is sad, scary or disheartening, it can feel a little like you’re trapped and unable to avoid learning things you’d rather not know.

Sometimes, even if we’d rather not know the bad news, we feel it’s our duty to educate ourselves so we can make better decisions. In truth, this can actually have a huge impact on our mental health and well-being.

“People’s brains aren’t well equipped to deal with the information age,” said senior author Ilya Monosov, PhD, an associate professor of neuroscience, neurosurgery and of biomedical engineering.

“People are constantly checking, checking, checking for news, and some of that checking is totally unhelpful. Our modern lifestyles could be re-sculpting the circuits in our brain that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive in an uncertain and ever-changing world.”

In an ethical study on primates, the researchers came to the conclusion that there are two different types of people: the ones who want to know and the ones who’d prefer not to. They measured neural activity in the brain while the monkeys were faced with opposing choices.

“We found that attitudes toward seeking information about negative events can go both ways,” said first author Ahmad Jezzini, PhD, who is an instructor in neuroscience. “To us, that was a sign that the two attitudes may be guided by different neural processes.

“We started this study because we wanted to know how the brain encodes our desire to know what our future has in store for us,” Monosov said. “We’re living in a world our brains didn’t evolve for. The constant availability of information is a new challenge for us to deal with. I think understanding the mechanisms of information seeking is quite important for society and for mental health at a population level.”

The researchers are hopeful that these new findings could shed light on the processes underlying psychiatric conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, not to mention how we all cope (differently) with this endless cycle of information that is simply a feature of the world we live in.

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.