Please, Put a Pause on Your Pandemic Doomscrolling

Bad news is easy to find online, and it's hurting our mental health. How much does it take to affect moods? And what can we do about it?


If you’ve felt like your social media news feeds are an endless deluge of bad news these days, you’re probably not alone — and you’re probably not feeling great about it. A new study has found that doomscrolling is taking a toll on our mental health, and it only takes two minutes of COVID-related bad news for these negative effects to occur.

The study included contributions from Lara Aknin, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, and was published in PLOS ONE.

How does doomscrolling affect our mental health?

Doomscrolling — a term popularized by reporter Karen Ho — refers to the act of scrolling through a seemingly endless feed of bad news on social media. The term became especially prominent in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people were stuck isolating in their homes and spent more time than usual on social media as a result.

While it might not be surprising that repeated exposure to bad news would be bad for our mental health, the team behind the study wanted to know just how bad it really was. To do this, they exposed different audiences to COVID-related news stories on Twitter and YouTube.

After exposing study participants to these stories, the researchers surveyed them on how their moods had changed. They found that after only a few minutes of exposure, participants who were shown negative COVID-related news stories experienced lower moods than those in control groups.

“These findings suggest that spending as little as two to four minutes consuming negative news about COVID-19 can have a detrimental impact on our mood,” the authors said in an article for The Conversation.

Can positive news counteract the mental health toll?

Following this, another group of participants was exposed to what the authors refer to as COVID-kindness stories: videos or articles about acts of kindness or positive outcomes during the pandemic. For example, one of the stories included in the study was about a 99-year-old great grandmother who had recovered from COVID-19. The authors hypothesized that these positive stories might boost the study participants’ moods instead.

Interestingly, however, the team found that participants who had been exposed to COVID-kindness stories didn’t experience a positive increase in mood after all. While previous studies have found that positive news stories can lead to improvements in mood, these findings suggest that the same is not true when those stories also relate to the COVID-19 pandemic — perhaps because even these positive stories still reminded readers about the negative aspects of the pandemic.

“Although we didn’t see an improvement in mood among participants who were shown positive news stories involving acts of kindness, this may be because the stories were still related to COVID,” the authors explained.

Safeguarding your mental health on social media

While it’s not advisable to avoid news about the pandemic entirely, the authors do have some tips for how you can safeguard your mental health. This could involve following social media accounts that are dedicated to happy, uplifting content, or using your own social media to promote positivity and kindness amongst your friends.

“[W]e’re not suggesting that you avoid all news and negative content. We need to know what’s happening in the world. However, we should also be mindful of our mental health,” the authors said.

“If you log on to connect with other people, focus on the personal news and photos shared instead of the latest headlines.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.