I would like to express my deepest condolences to my peers at MSU and the entire MSU community. My thoughts are with you.
What are the implications of having grown up using social media? How has it impacted our relationship with trauma?
Content warning: this post contains mention of tragedy and gun violence
Last Monday night, I lay in my bed scrolling. Searching for any information on the horrible tragedy occurring an hour away in East Lansing.
Refreshing my social media over and over again, I sought reassurance and answers.
After a large period of time spent on my phone, I was gaining no new information. Rather, I was just interacting with never-ending horrific visuals and agonizing stories. Scrolling would not help me find comfort because there could never be a definitive answer or explanation that would allow me to wrap my head around everything.
Nonetheless, I kept refreshing into the late hours of the night, instead of using social media for a better purpose- to connect with my loved ones.
5 years ago, I was in the same doomscrolling setup, but in Florida, grieving the Parkland massacre and feeling useless. The weight of my lack of control was suffocating.
In some ways, I feel as though around the corner of every one of my generation’s milestone memories, we have faced tragedy. I, like most of my grade, was born a year before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, entering a period marked by intense policy change and societal distress. Following this, we have served as witnesses to recessions, wars, horrifying displays of gun violence, including a sickening amount at schools, racial violence, a pandemic… the atrocious list goes on. I mourn the losses continuously.
Simultaneously, we have grown up alongside the rise of social media. In 2003, Myspace was founded. In 2004, Facebook. 2005, Reddit and YouTube. 2006, Twitter. 2010, Instagram. 2011, Snapchat. 2016, TikTok. What are the implications of having grown up using social media? How has it impacted our relationship with trauma?
Today, I was going to sit and write about the comparison cycles we face as performing artists on social media and how to create healthy boundaries online, but it now feels tone-deaf, considering the heartbreak and fear our community is again facing.
I understand that due to the nature of the performing arts, many of us artists are on social media. That means we take in a great amount of content that exists outside of our arts communities. So, I want to use this platform to give voice to the challenge of navigating tragedy in the digital era we live in.
Social media plays a huge role in how we perceive and experience constant tragedies. Often, it brings people together during difficult times. We can give and seek support from our friends, family, and communities through social media, or locate needed information and share vital resources. Yet, there is something very tough about the manner in which social media concurrently causes us to engage with an incredibly overwhelming amount of traumatic content. It is so easy to go online and suddenly be pulled into the negative cycle of doomscrolling.
What is doomscrolling and why can’t I stop?
Doomscrolling (a word that gained momentum during the peak of the Pandemic) is when we spend an excessive amount of time viewing negative online news or social media without the ability to stop. Looking at the etymology of the word, doom comes from the Old English word ‘dom,’ which means condemnation. It connoted darkness and evil (as someone they deemed “evil” would be condemned) and eventually came to refer to one’s fate. This creates a type of unfortunate doublespeak- as we doomscroll, we might begin to feel that the world is a dark place, that the world is subsequently doomed, and then, that we will also face some terrible fate. Further, by continuing this negative feedback loop of scrolling, we begin to doom ourselves- doomed to feel disheartened, angered, or depressed.
Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, says that doomscrolling is basically a coping mechanism called “monitoring,” where we try to gain control over a situation by getting as much information as we can. It becomes unhelpful when that information cannot be turned into a solution for what is happening because there is not going to be a straightforward course of action to gain control over trauma. There is not one singular “fix” an individual can take to eradicate a social problem as massive as gun violence.
Additionally, doomscrolling is addictive beyond its role as a coping mechanism due to infinite scroll and unit bias.
The Infinite Scroll and Unit Bias
This is because it created a barrier to the human desire of recognizing patterns, specifically creating units. Unit bias is a cognitive bias people have that makes them want to complete a unit or fulfill an objective. People believe there is an optimal unit size and want to follow it through to the end because the perception of completion is so satisfying.
For instance, have you ever felt that you needed to finish a book chapter before you could go to bed, or finish all of the food that is on your plate even when you were full?
Now, let’s apply that unit bias to our interactions with social media. Our brains want to create a “unit” when we scroll. To some, this could look like scrolling until you have reached the content you last saw on Instagram. However, if we take this to platforms such as TikTok with its ForYouPage, our brain cannot create a unit due to the infinite scroll and continuous new content.
Not to mention, there is the FOMO we may feel if we stop scrolling- what if we miss a post that is important to us? Or could potentially give us more information on the tragedies our community is faced with (in other words, the doomscrolling mindset)?
Thus, doomscrolling and the infinite scroll feature in combination make a mentally dangerous pair.
I am not here to completely villainize social media or lecture my generation on the dangers of social media- we have all heard that plenty. Yet, I do think more people should be talking about the dangers of doomscrolling because we live in a world of frequent tragedies- heavy content overload is not going to fade any time soon.
Firstly, It reinforces negative feelings, including hopelessness. When we feel anxious or depressed, there is a tendency to seek news that confirms those feelings.
If you are someone like me who struggles with depression and/or an anxiety disorder, doomscrolling can trigger an episode. It increases panic, worry, and stress hormones, which often remain once your device is put away. If you are someone who struggles with anxiety, it may even trigger panic attacks.
The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, can cause physical exhaustion alongside mental fatigue. Doomscrolling interferes with sleep when you cannot relax before bed. If you are not rested, it will make it very hard for you to support yourself mentally, or support others. You are intrinsically deserving of rest- help yourself achieve that rest.
We can appreciate the connections social media allows us, but we must learn to be extremely cautious of the effects of negative content overload. Our mental health and our community’s mental health are at stake.
So, where should we start in combatting the challenge of experiencing constant trauma every time we are online?
Set periods in your schedule where you are going to “detox” from social media. When it comes to detoxing, you just need to start somewhere- you don’t have to take giant leaps. It doesn’t matter if your time off of social media is for a few hours, days, or months. Though, if you are anything like me, it can be hard to hold yourself accountable to stay off of social media for a period, even only a few hours, if the app is right on your home screen. Try uninstalling your social media app or check out a social media blocker app. Or, put your phone in another room or in a drawer and set a timer for a timed break offline.
Downtime cannot be restful if it is spent on your phone, digesting an overwhelming amount of content. Instead, spend your downtime off of social media doing activities that are restful to YOU. Maybe that looks like hanging out with your friends in person, reading a book, journaling, cooking, stretching, or crafting (I learned how to knit recently so I have something to do besides going on my phone before bed and during my practice/study breaks).
If a set detox period feels a little difficult to start with, try challenging yourself to turn some of your notifications off, or to set some boundaries as to when you can check those notifications. Perhaps you can have an “active period” and a “nonactive” period when it comes to social media. This could look something like being off of social media in the morning and before bed but allowing yourself an “active” online period between lunch and dinner.
It is okay to not have the capacity to take in that much content- regardless of if it is negative or not. Be intentional about what you do see. Ask yourself: is the content I am interacting with making me feel good or feel bad?
It is so valid if you need to unfollow a certain content creator for a period so that you can process and grieve without feeling the need to keep up with more heavy content.
Additionally, be intentional about what you do during your time on social media. When you go on social media, try to use that time actively to reach out to and check on friends, connect your followers with resources or uplifting content as a form of community care, or donate/organize donations if you are in a position to do so. Focus on the positive things you can do rather than getting stuck in a negative cycle.
Support your community and lean into them in return. And again, boundaries are healthy- imperative even. It is normal to not have unlimited emotional space to help someone hold their suffering and grief. We cannot care for our community if our individual, emotional batteries are running low.
To my fellow students: these are extremely difficult times. Please reach out at any time if you need help getting connected to mental health resources.
Ellis, Mary Ellen. “What Is Doomscrolling? Why It Happens and How It Affects Your Mental Health.” Constellation Behavioral Health, Constellation Behavioral Health, 15 Jan. 2021, https://www.constellationbehavioralhealth.com/blog/what-is-doomscrolling-why-it-happens-and-how-it-affects-your-mental-health/.
“Is Social Media Toxic? Here’s How to Manage the Downsides.” RSS, https://www.adlava.com/news/why-social-media-is-toxic-and-what-you-can-do-about-it.
Rupp, Erin. “The Infinite Scroll: Why It’s so Addictive and How to Break Free.” Freedom Matters, 16 Mar. 2022, https://freedom.to/blog/infinite-scroll/.
Zalta, Rachel. “The ‘Unit Bias’: The Science behind Why Endless Content Keeps Users Consuming.” Taboola Blog, Taboola, 18 Feb. 2020, https://blog.taboola.com/science-behind-infinite-scroll/.