September 27, 2023


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Why we can’t stop doomscrolling Ukraine

When Joel Schwartzberg gets into bed, he tucks his phone in with him. For three to four hours each night, he scrolls through haunting images and heartbreaking developments in Ukraine.

He says he finds solace commiserating with others on Twitter over the worrisome state of the world. But his sense of comfort and security slip farther away with every swipe, making it tough for him to fall asleep.

“It feeds on itself,” said Schwartzberg, a 53-year-old public speaking coach from Chatham, New Jersey, who is trying to spend less time online and more time with his wife, kids and 10 cats. “The more doom I see, the more I want to see it.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has Americans doomscrolling again. And this time, our national addiction is worse than ever.

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Two plus years of the COVID-19 pandemic compounded by the nation’s reckoning with racial injustice and police brutality, political polarization, climate change and other calamities had already shattered people’s normalcy and routine.

With Ukraine, the world changed almost overnight. As the military conflict intensifies, the number of fleeing refugees and civilian casualties is rising. Escalating economic sanctions from the U.S. and its allies are rippling through Americans’ everyday lives, contributing to growing levels of stress, anxiety and uncertainty.

Increasingly people find themselves back on their phone, tablet, or laptop, compulsively scanning social media for updates on the conflict to bear witness to trauma and grief a continent away.

When someone spends so many hours doomscrolling, they come away with an exaggerated sense of danger and increased feelings of vulnerability, said University of Virginia psychology professor Bethany Teachman.

“Ukraine on top of everything is such a horror for so many of us and is challenging so many people’s expectations of how the world is supposed to work. We are overwhelmed in a lot of ways,” Teachman said. “We are seeing people who were previously anxious now experiencing some ongoing feelings of anxiety that are really hard to manage and feeling like when is the next shoe going to drop. What’s next here?”

A resident uses a mobile phone while sheltering in the basement of a building in Irpin as Russian forces moved through Irpin, Ukraine Monday.

A resident uses a mobile phone while sheltering in the basement of a building in Irpin as Russian forces moved through Irpin, Ukraine Monday.

The human brain is hardwired to be on high alert, scanning for potential threats whenever we feel unsafe or uncertain, says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center.

We seek out information to regain control. But the relentless torrent of negative news only stokes our fears and fuels our need to find out even more so we don’t miss something vital to our survival, she said.

Social media news feeds exacerbate the problem as algorithms quietly observe our behavior and serve up more of the same.

“You are continually trying to read this stuff and process it in a way that ironically is trying to calm our brain down but instead has the opposite effect,” Rutledge said.

Barbara Malmet, a 69-year-old artist and retired film professor from New York City, says she returned to doomscrolling in the late evening hours when Chernobyl was seized by Russian forces and again when the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was attacked. She says it’s her way to “process the unfathomable.”

But she sets limits for herself. “I will actively make myself stop at a certain point when I have information overload,” Malmet said.

Her doomscrolling rules: No devices during meals and no phone in the bedroom overnight. She meditates and exercises every day. She reads contemporary fiction, watches a movie or a miniseries, or listens to vinyl records with her eyes closed. And she spends time with friends, again with no phones allowed.

“It’s perfectly normal to doomscroll. Don’t beat yourself up about it,” Rutledge said. “Recognize that it is something we do innately and that’s OK. But it’s also OK to take protective actions.”

Here are some simple steps to help control doomscrolling:

Monitor sleep, mood

“There’s all kinds of evidence that a lot of consumption of negative news has effects not just on mood and depression but it changes your view about the whole world,” Rutledge said. “In other words, you don’t just think Ukraine is dangerous. You start having this generalized anxiety feeling like your neighborhood is dangerous or everything is dangerous.”

Track the time you spend doomscrolling and monitor how it affects your mood, relationships, sleep and ability to engage in other activities. Be intentional about who you follow and what you read.

“It’s really a case of stepping back and asking: Am I getting any more information right now than I had before? And how is this making me feel?” Rutledge said.

Set time constraints, take breaks

Reduce how much time you spend doomscrolling.

For example, you could check social media for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening or you could take a day off a week, Teachman says. Or you could put down your phone at night or leave it in another room when you sleep.

Share your goals with a significant other or friend to increase the likelihood you will follow through.

“All of those steps make it more likely you will follow through. It’s like going to the gym or flossing,” Teachman says.

Watch a cat video, take a walk

Make sure doomscrolling isn’t keeping you from your favorite activities or people. Stroll, don’t scroll. Take an exercise class. Read a book or watch a movie.

“Actively do something that makes you laugh or sweat,” Rutledge recommends, like watching a cat video or jumping on the treadmill.

“It’s about balance really,” Teachman said.

Turn negative into a positive

Focus on what you can do to help, even if it’s small. For example, donate to humanitarian efforts or help the local Ukrainian community.

We feel a strong sense of powerlessness in the face of human suffering and we don’t know what to do, Teachman says.

Taking action can restore our sense of control and make us feel like we are contributing “rather than being passive observers to misery and pain,” she said.

Still anxious? Seek professional help

If small behavioral changes don’t help, consider seeking professional help, Teachman recommends. “There are lots of great treatments for anxiety,” she said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia Ukraine doomscrolling affecting sleep, anxiety: Tips to stop

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