TORONTO — It was 1:36 a.m. on a Tuesday, about two weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, when Canadian journalist Karen Ho asked her Twitter followers to try putting down their phones.
“You can always keep doomscrolling tomorrow,” wrote Ho, a global finance and economics reporter for Quartz.
By doomscrolling, Ho was referring to the act of reading the seemingly endless stream of upsetting news headlines that emerge on social media in times of distress. She’d seen the term used before, but she hadn’t seen it applied to the pandemic.
“It doesn’t require a lot of explanation, most people understand exactly what it means,” Ho told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Wednesday. “As soon as I saw it, it was full recognition of something I do and I’ve been struggling for a couple years with how to manage it.”
Since her first tweet, Ho has made a habit of encouraging her Twitter followers to stop doomscrolling on a nightly basis, usually after 10:30 p.m. Gradually, the term has grown in popular use, making its way into media reports and everyday lexicon as people grapple for ways to describe their obsessive online behaviour during the pandemic.
Merriam-Webster recently flagged doomscrolling as one of the words it is “watching” but hasn’t yet met its criteria for entry into the dictionary. The word has also appeared in stories in Business Insider, and its close cousin, “doomsurfing,” appeared in the New York Times.
The irresistible draw of doomscrolling, Ho said, comes from a “hurry-up-and-wait” instinct to seek out information on the pandemic, even if that information is scarce or incomplete.
“Everybody is hungry for any kind of information to feel less uncertain and less chaotic right now,” she said.
That hunger for information in times of crisis is hardwired into our biology, according to Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“We are hyper-vigilant for challenges or threats that evolved when the world was pretty simple and the only thing you had to check was right around you,” McNaughton-Cassill told CTV News Channel in an interview on Thursday.
“Out on the savannah, if you found signs of something that was dangerous, you wanted to notice it, remember it and avoid it in the future. And that kind of tendency is still working.”
With COVID-19, a big part of the problem is that the news is covering a rolling disaster rather than a one-off event. Unlike a hurricane or an act of terrorism, the pandemic has no borders and can feel inescapable at times.
“The problem with the news is also that oftentimes we are seeing really bad things that are happening, but there is no way for us as individuals to make a difference. And that’s very different than the history of humans,” McNaughton-Cassill said.
“It has to do with technology and the media, because there has always been pandemics and riots and disasters, but you only knew about the ones that were in your purview where you might actually be able to do something to respond.”
As protests emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police and news coverage shifted away from the pandemic, Ho considered stopping her nightly doomscrolling reminders. But then she heard from followers who said they’d come to rely on her.
“I got a lot of feedback that it was helping some people on a nightly basis to stop scrolling,” she said.
For those who struggle with the onslaught of bad news — and the journalists who cover that bad news — Ho said it’s important to set boundaries and, when you need to, take time to log off.
“I always say, ‘Sometimes it’s OK to take a break and get some rest.’”
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