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The allure of doomscrolling and watching our fears onscreen

By Andrea Panaligan Published Jul 09, 2021 6:00 am

The Oxford English Dictionary declared “doomscrolling” — the act of spending excessive time online absorbing bad news — one of 2020’s Words of the Year. It’s easy to see why: the continuous crumbling of social structures, coupled with the 24-hour news cycle and the democratization of news coverage, means we were bearing witness to human suffering on the largest scale possible, and it seems this was something we found difficult to brush off. 

I surveyed over 100 people to ask if their phones are out to kill them too; unsurprisingly, almost everyone reported feeling distressed to some degree by what they see online, but only a small portion — 11 percent — stop scrolling even when they do. This is alarming given that doomscrolling has been associated with increased depression symptoms as well as pandemic-related anxiety. 

But this can’t-look-away-from-a-car-crash impulse is actually innate, and definitely not unique to the social media age. “We are highly attracted to stimuli that are conflict-driven,” Andrea Martinez, a professor from the University of the Philippines Manila’s Department of Behavioral Sciences, told Young STAR. “(This is) primarily because it is adaptive to us. It helps us in our survival if we pay attention to it.” 

The possible harmful effects of doomscrolling — and seeing traumatic events covered in mass media in general — may as well be a pandemic in itself.

Like early humans watching out for potential predators, vigilant attention to anomalies helps us assess if something is a threat. A pandemic is the optimal petri dish for this drive: given how little we actually know about the virus, we hunt and gather for any signs of what comes next. Some survey respondents shared that they don’t stop scrolling despite feeling distressed because they fear missing out on important news like local vaccine rollouts or updated lockdown restrictions.

While this seems reasonable, many people actually scroll past the point of necessity, and we often find ourselves in a Catch 22: we want to feel better so we scroll to find answers, and the fact that we can’t find any can make us feel worse. It can also lead us to yet another stream of news without resolutions, and we get trapped in this vicious cycle of uncertainty. “If you feel like (scrolling) is affecting your mental health, edi medyo useless yung pagiging well-informed mo kasi nao-overpower ‘yon ng stress and anxiety mo,’’ explained Paui, an illustrator from Quezon City.

The possible harmful effects of doomscrolling — and seeing traumatic events covered in mass media in general — may as well be a pandemic in itself. The Association for Psychological Science found that people who watched at least four hours of 9/11 or Iraq War-related TV broadcasts daily were more susceptible to acute stress, as well as physical health problems, even two to three years later.

The American Psychiatric Association officially recognizes the mental health risks of constant exposure to footage of traumatic events, calling it vicarious or indirect trauma. It is usually associated with people encountering exposure in their line of work, like cops or journalists, but now that footage like this is made accessible to anyone online — vicarious trauma can occur just as easily to anyone.

Discovering our biological inclination to doomscroll made me curious about all the other times we actively subject ourselves to content we know will be distressing. It seems intuitive that the excessive exposure we have to real-life tragedy would make us averse to any other negative stimuli; so how do we explain the passionate female fans of slasher films despite their often misogynistic undertones, or people with anxiety finding comfort in scary movies?

Among my respondents, there is a significant overlap between doomscrollers and fans of horror, with many describing their horror viewing experiences as exciting, immersive, even addicting. 

James, a 21-year-old physical therapy student and hardcore horror fan, reported finding catharsis in the genre. After experiencing trauma in his teenage years, he got drawn to distressing shows because of a connection he feels with the antagonists — they both nurse a desire for revenge and expressing anger that the character gives into. Nicayhe, a student from La Union, similarly finds comfort in horror and thriller movies: “I sometimes watch them so that I can cry and release pent-up anger or emotions.”

When we feel like our trauma governs much of our lives, being able to take control of our anxiety, even just for 90 minutes, can indeed be exciting and addicting. In fact, in therapy, gaining this kind of control over one’s trauma responses through gradual and repetitive exposure is one of the most empirically backed approaches to trauma recovery.

Movies allow viewers to witness similar trauma events from a safe distance. Through watching horror movies, “we are able to observe our trauma from the outside for the very first time, giving us the awareness and liberation we desperately need to continue feeling through our recovery,” writes The Guest House Ocala, a treatment facility for trauma survivors that utilizes cinema therapy, on their website. This safe distance doesn’t exist when we doomscroll; rather than liberation, we feel tied to the traumatic events we see.

I guess there are real consequences to constantly being exposed to distressing news. Then again, we shouldn’t look away just because we’re uncomfortable — especially when the news reflects our reality.

However, many respondents shared they feel it is their responsibility to constantly be aware of current issues: “I guess there are real consequences to constantly being exposed to distressing news. Then again, we shouldn’t look away just because we’re uncomfortable — especially when the news reflects our reality,” shared Sandra, a student from Manila.

Lia, a Broadcast Communication student from Laguna, said that the least she could do is to be aware and raise awareness. “I’m in a position of privilege and looking away isn’t something I should do.” 

This is an understandable concern. Because we have access to news at all times, turning away at any point feels inexcusable and irresponsible. Doomscrolling, after all, is a privilege — it sometimes entails we don’t have direct experience of what we’re reading about, which may be why we are reading about them in the first place. 

We must also keep in mind, however, that we don’t have to loyally follow the 24-hour news cycle to be aware; we are simply not built to constantly be in fight-or-flight mode. Actively seeking out trusted news sources and taking time to read more than the headlines can often alleviate any instinctive bursts of anger or frustration. Taking any kind of action, like donating or listening to people with firsthand experience, can also help ease feelings of helplessness.

Then again, these, like doomscrolling itself, are merely coping strategies. We may have some semblance of control in how we interact with social media and consume news, but it can be difficult to assert that control when every day we are lurched into one crisis after another; when we have to endure insufficient social welfare, a weak healthcare sector, widespread unemployment, and food insecurity. Until institutionalized social ills are eliminated, we will continue merely rationing the harms they cause in the guise of mental health care. With the odds stacked against us, we are doomed to be doomscrollers.

Photo art by Ianna Rallonza