How I Detoxed My Feed and Quit Doomscrolling for Good
It was mid-2020 and I was living alone in a quiet coastal town along the south coast of Australia. Increasingly cold weather, a few nagging freelance jobs, and pandemic-era physical distancing restrictions kept me inside 99 per cent of the time, where I cycled endlessly between screens—phone, tablet, laptop, TV—drinking in a continuous drip-feed of global chaos.
We were a few months into the first pandemic-related lockdown and protests spread from Minneapolis all the way to Melbourne and elsewhere, as people fought against systemic racism after the death of George Floyd. The devastating Australian bushfire season that started the year started to feel like a lifetime ago, as 2020 continued on its upward trajectory of pandemonium.
I kept reminding myself to be grateful for my safe, comfortable life when so much of the world was in turmoil, while the pull of the latest updates were usually too strong to resist. Instead of checking Instagram a few times a day I was constantly refreshing my feeds on Twitter, Facebook and TikTok as well. Between Tiger King memes and "Savage" dance videos, the now Always Online global population with nothing but free time were grappling with big questions, as though they were brand new.
I was addicted to doomscrolling and it was starting to wear me down. I was going to sleep later with each passing night and waking up groggy with little energy for productive activities, such as cooking healthy meals and outdoor exercise. Of course I always found just enough energy to log on and hit refresh across my multiple devices.
What is doomscrolling?
I'm not alone. Doomscrolling has been a problem for many social media users this year, with the New York Times observing increased instances of "doomsurfing" back in March, and evidence that millions are struggling with excessive social media use still plainly obvious—at least judging by the overactive Twitter accounts that leave me to question when these people get anything else donw, and the majority "Active now" accounts in my Instagram DMs list at any given time.
So what it exactly? According to psychologist and clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at NYU, Ariane Ling, doomscrolling is "the act of endlessly scrolling down one's news apps, Twitter, and social media and reading bad news". And according to Dr Patricia Celan, who is a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University, the act is akin to other kinds of evolutionary habits formed to familiarise ourselves with dangers in order to feel prepared and in control.
"Doomscrolling has worsened during the pandemic because people are hypervigilant for danger and are more likely to seek information in hopes of finding a way to control the problem," Dr Celan told Healthline.
Interesting, sure, but what of the real physical and psychological effects of this fun new habit I'd picked up? We are aware by now that excessive social media use can lead to increased feelings of depression and loneliness, so excessive use in times of isolation can surely be must be even worse...
How doomscrolling can impact your health
Research has repeatedly found links between social media use and a range of mental health issues in young people, ranging from depression, anxiety, poor sleep, eating issues and increased suicide risk.
"Many people think that they'll feel safer by staying abreast of the latest news. Yet, they don't [realise] that consumption of the negative news only leads to greater fear, anxiety, and stress," says a clinical psychologist Dr Carla Marie Manly. "For some, doomscrolling becomes a 'unsatisfying addiction' that promises safety, security, or certainty when, in fact, the ever-changing, melodramatic news provides the opposite."
Given that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are inherently connected to our physical health, there are no surprises that negative habit such as doomscrolling can lead to physical symptoms, Manly says, such as:
- disrupted sleep
- decreased attentiveness
- increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline (which are both stress hormones)
- increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity
After a few weeks of doomscrolling daily I decided it was getting me absolutely nowhere and with the help of a trusted health professional who was thankfully able to see me over Zoom I implemented some necessary changes.
5 changes that helped me quit doomscrolling
I believe the dark side of social media is real, and in an ideal world I'd prefer to completely rule out any damaging mental health effects completely—as in, quit social media for good. But I'm just a person and don't currently have the willpower to leave social media behind completely. So until I'm able to feel fully alive without the constant connection to an online world, I've had the immense privilege to be able to make changes that helped me to significantly reduce excessive and compulsive checking of social media.
To be clear: none of this is to recommend sticking your head in the sand in any way. It's about doing what you can to reduce the psychological and physical health effects of excessive social media use.
If you are struggling, I hope these ideas might help you.
1. One-day detox: I forced myself off all social media and the internet in general (except for Netflix on the TV!) for an entire day. This allowed me to feel a hint of what life would be like without the constant noise and also gave my scrolling thumb a much-needed break. By the time I got into bed I found it relatively easy to resist the call of a quick 30 minutes on TikTok that had punctuated my bedtime routine in the weeks prior. The next day I woke up more mindful about when and how I would check in on my various social media feeds, and I was able to make it out of bed and into the kitchen before I logged on. A small win.
2. Account audit: Once I was back on the grid, I allowed myself some time to methodically review my follower/friend lists across all platforms. I unfollowed and removed every account that did not spark joy or teach me something. Anyone I knew in real life but didn't necessarily want popping up in my feed I would simply mute. It's nothing personal, and I acknowledge I'm likely muted by many of my mutuals. I continued this removal/muting rule whenever I scrolled past a post that I felt didn't cut the mustard.
3. Talk it out: I shared my experiences with my longtime psychologist and her advice was simple: Would me worrying help solve a global pandemic or widespread racial injustice? No. The best I could do was to listen, learn and look after my health. Talk to a health professional or friend or family to help get yourself some much-needed perspective.
4. Set limits: To varying success, I set limits for myself on each social media platform. One hour on Twitter on the laptop, a brisk 10 minutes on Facebook, and a morning and evening session on Instagram, mostly chatting to friends over DM allowed me to get just enough without going overboard. I allowed myself a strict 30 minutes of TikTok in the mornings, as a treat.
5. Walk away: I took at least one if not two walks outside without my phone. I realised sometimes the simplest advice is the best advice. Some time in the fresh air at least 1.5 metres away from passers by did wonders for my mental and physical state.
Since my doomscrolling days I've moved out of my quiet freelance life by the coast to a 9-5 job in a big city, which on its own was enough to drastically reduce the amount of time I spent on social media. But when I do scroll—and I definitely do still scroll—I do so with a healthier, less catastrophe-ready mindset. I follow more accounts than ever, which has somehow only improved the quality of my feed. I no longer feel anxious at every Facebook Messenger notification or Instagram DM that pops up, and I have for the most part left Twitter behind, for now at least. I'm barely checking TikTok, but I sure do like knowing that it's there when I need it.
Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255.