Doomscrolling is the compulsive consumption of problem-saturated media content. The scroll describes the endless feed of posts, memes, and articles many of which feed our plugged-in brains with doom, gloom, and drama.
This intense information that is readily available on your screens pulls you out of your current realities. It can cause us to neglect our own self-care. The anxiety-producing and addictive-nature of doomscrolling might be taking a toll on your marital happiness too.
Our brains burn a lot of fuel trying to tell a story that might lead us to safety. Sometimes that burnout leads to cognitive leaps and magical thinking and explains some of the online misunderstandings and clashes that we take for granted these days.
In this post, I’ll discuss doomscrolling, the Mean World Syndrome, and marital health.
Dr. Mesfin Bekalu, is a research scientist in the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Bekalu’s area of research is unusually timely as he studies the topic of health communication.
His research explores the intended and unintended influence of mass-media messages on the health-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that emerge in culture.
His work is particularly relevant during the COVID pandemic.
Research began to emerge in the 1970s which looked at the influence of television on culture. Dr. Bekalu has expanded on that research to demonstrate that the evolution of social media has made us more fearful, anxious, and more tolerant of violence and heated conflict.
As humans, we have a ‘natural’ tendency to pay more attention to negative news. This, along with the deadly accuracy of social media algorithms, renders doomscrolling, and its implications, almost inevitable.
These social media algorithms customize what you see, based on a pretty good guess that you’ll want to see it, no matter when it was published. Social media and most search engines will prioritize which pages and posts best match your preferences so that you are sure to see the content that lines up with your beliefs and tastes.
So now you are presented with a curated scroll of doom; matched perfectly with your individual concerns and fears.
Dr. George Gerbner was born in Budapest in 1919. Gerbner fled Hungary in 1939 as a fascist government seized power. He emigrated to the U.S. and graduated from the University of California.
After serving in the Second World War, Gerbner worked as a researcher in communications at the University of Illinois and then taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
He began researching the influence of violence in the media, exploring indications that a significant cultural shift was taking place. His research suggested, over time, that Americans were becoming more anxious and uncertain.
Gebner posited that those who can reliably tell the stories of a culture ultimately controls human behavior.
It used to be the parent, the school, the church, the community. Now it’s a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell, but a great deal to sell. George Gebner in the 1970’s.
The stories sold by these groups are inherently suspect, Gebner would seem to imply, and how they are sold is even more problematic.
Gebner’s central thesis is that the coarsening of our mass media has desensitized us to violence, violated our social and political norms, and lowered our expectations for safety and security. His research led us to the notion of the ‘Mean World Syndrome.’
Mean World Syndrome is the growing belief from the 1970’s onward that the world is a more uncertain and perilous place to live in than it actually is.
Gebner’s ideas were so provocative that numerous studies focused on the emotional impact of violent visual media, trying to answer the question…was he right?
Is our current preoccupation with doomscrolling merely a modern expression of the same Mean World Syndrome? We are scrolling through countless sensationalized and scary stories to, ironically, feel safe. As a result we see the world as a very uncertain place.
The research was as inconvenient as it was clear. Violent TV and cinema sparked an uptick in the background levels of anxiety, depression, pessimism, fear, and anger in American culture over the last 50 years.
Child experts noticed and also raised the alarm…
Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed. American Academy of Pediatrics
Follow-up research confirming Gebner’s findings continues to come in.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Oklahoma as recently as 2018 suggested that there is “good evidence establishing a relationship between disaster television viewing and various psychological outcomes.”
What do these studies mean for marital happiness? You might find yourself turning away from your partner and towards that device, looking for the next post or missing piece of information. Rather than being reassured or inspired by what you see, there is more doom, more scrolling. For some, this may also mean more depression and more anxiety.
Gebner and his team conducted a number of large-scale research projects. In 1975, Gebner finally presented his Cultivation Theory.
Gebner’s Cultivation Theory suggested that violent media, over time, “cultivates” our perception of reality through images and ideological messages viewed, for the most part, (at the time of his research) on primetime TV.
The more media we consume, the more our perception of events is distorted. In other words, our brains are being actively shaped by our doomscrolling.
Not only is it being shaped against our will, it’s also pushing us ever deeper down whatever anxious rabbit-hole scares us the most. Now, feeling profoundly unsafe, we consume even more of our favorite doom-saturated media so we don’t “miss out.”
“Media publications sensationalize their headlines because that grabs people’s attention and feeds our need to feel reassured by finding out more about potential dangers and threats.” Dr. George Gerbner
In the modern data-driven era, the content we are consuming is dynamic, and carefully crafted to lure us into emotional states that are as persistent as they are premeditated. You are being played, as are we all.
It is the monetization and commercialization of our cultural stories that created a distorted reality. This reality followed corporate logic and image-driven marketing formulas causing banality and violence to permeate our societal narratives.
In 1975, Cultivation Theory suggested that “the more time people spend ‘living’ in the television world (social media today) the more likely they are to believe social reality aligns with the reality portrayed on television (social media.)
“The most general and prevalent association with television viewing is a heightened sense of living in a ‘mean world’ of violence and danger. Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line measures.” Dr. George Gebner
Dr. Bekalu folds doomscrolling into the Mean World Syndrome;
“So, doomscrolling can lead to the same long-term effects on mental health unless we mount interventions that address users’ behaviors and guide the design of social media platforms in ways that improve mental health and well-being.” Dr. Mesfin Bekalu.
If doomscrolling is highjacking your nervous system, there’s a clear correlation between the amount of media we consume and our levels of fear and anxiety. And if our relationship is impaired because of excessive doomscrolling, there is a way out of emotional gridlock.
Notice how your brain steers you to watch or read the same disturbing content, so imagine having a media “gatekeeper” who limits or balances-out your social media intake with more positive input.
2. Curbing your Doomscrolling starts with noticing how and when you indulge. Many experts suggest using a timer and limiting the amount of time you spend on your devices.
So, for example, you put set aside 30 minutes to cruise your social media feed. However, when the time is up, put your phone down. Notice the stress and the voice in your head that is afraid to “miss out” on what may have just happened.
3. Work with your nervous system not against it. Keep your phone away from your bedroom nightstand, and stop using your phone as an alarm clock.
4. Treat your phone as if it were radioactive. Inconvenience yourself. Leave your phone in the other room. Stop keeping it nearby. Notice what you think and feel when you get up and retrieve it. If your partner has complained about your pfubbing in the past, ask them to help you out with this.
5. Don’t schedule your outrage. You may subscribe to a YouTube feed that inspires and stimulates. But resist signing up for their news alerts, it just encourages you to doomscroll.
6. Replace your dopamine delivery system. Replace digital dopamine delivery with something more old school. Get a book of poetry or a volume of brief meditations. Try reading aloud to one another. Build some resilience against knee-jerk doomscrolling. Replace some of your doomscrolling with a replacement behavior that is potentially more positive and uplifting.
Here are a few things to do instead:
7. Try setting aside a specific time of day for catching up on the news. It’s also important to limit your doomscrolling to 20 minutes (30 minutes tops.) Notice your self-talk when your time is up, and remind yourself that if something important does happen…you WILL hear about it soon enough.
8. Be intentional. Be specific about what you need to know, plan to read it, and then have a plan to shift gears and lighten the mood once you’re done.
They can help you set time limits on distracting sites on your laptop. It’s also important to note that most smartphones also allow you to control your screen time.
10. Be patient. If you’re getting negative feedback from your spouse about your doomscrolling, or if you’re concerned about your partner’s doomscrolling, recognize that your brains are more powerful than your phones. Keep trying to implement the interventions we listed above, you will start to see changes!
Social media overwhelms us by exposing us to an endless stream of information about events and issues that are beyond our control. But we can network with our neighbors or ask our partners to share a new experience. These are things that are within our control.
Maybe this involve volunteering, working on a local issue, or discussing how you both could be of help in your community.
Remember that the issues that lead to doomscrolling are typically huge, systemic issues that emotionally captivate us all. We are living in history. Perhaps our Mean World Syndrome has birthed a world that’s finally as mean as we’ve previously imagined it to be.
So be it….but we still have the power to imagine something different instead.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.