How to Stop Doomscrolling—and Start Using the Internet Mindfully

Too much time online can amplify our stress. But once we learn to use the internet more mindfully, we make room for genuine connection with ourselves and our communities. (ojogabonitoo/iStock)

Investigative journalist Karen K. Ho knows a thing or two about doomscrolling—the habit of obsessively refreshing your newsfeed and losing yourself in headlines, tweets and comments about the pandemic, the wildfires, the election and systemic racism.

Twice—once when she was in graduate school, and once when she was working on her first Time cover story—Ho had a friend lock her out of her Twitter account to help her break her habit. Since April, she’s been tweeting nightly reminders to get offline, get some sleep, drink water and tend to IRL hobbies and relationships. These PSAs have earned her a large following of others, myself included, struggling to curb their social media use during this chaotic year.

“We were all taught ‘knowledge is power’ and there’s the hope that reading something will help us have a better grasp and guidance on what is happening right now and how to move forward,” Ho tells me in an email. “The level of bad news and uncertainty about the future means there are real limits to this saying, especially with how much disinformation is now being disseminated on social media on a mass scale.”

Why do we doomscroll?

San Francisco therapist Ken Stamper sees many clients whose internet use leads to anxiety, and says the reasons for doomscrolling are complicated. First, there’s our desire to share in a collective experience at a time when many of us feel alienated and disconnected. “It could be a collective trauma, in the case of the fires. It could be this sense of, ‘We’re all in it together, we’re all here.’” he says. “Especially when this is all happening in a pandemic, where we can’t connect like we normally could.”

Another factor, he suspects, is a sense of excitement, even when it’s bad news. “There’s this sense of, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ There’s kind of an aliveness in that that people get.”

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Yes, we need the internet for work and school, and to stay informed on social and political issues so that we can be engaged, responsible members of our communities. But there is a way to use it mindfully, and to stay informed with limits.

So what can we do to stop doomscrolling? Here are a few tips.

Go in with a plan

Ever open a social app and then realize two hours just went by? Stamper suggests making an agreement with yourself before you log on about how long you’ll spend there. “I suggest giving yourself 5 minutes, 10 minutes—whatever feels reasonable, even half an hour,” he says. “Set an alarm if you need to so you have something external telling you to stop.”

Once your time is up, check in with yourself about how you’re feeling. “Really take that information and sit and see, how does that serve you? Did that feel good? Did that not feel good? Is that enough?”

Use apps to limit your app addiction

Social media is as addictive as gambling. Researchers have likened social platforms to slot machines, trapping users in a cycle of checking notifications or scrolling until they get a reward. “These social media messages can activate the same brain mechanisms as cocaine [does],” Dr. Daniel Kruger, psychology researcher the University of Michigan, told The Guardian in 2018.

Research has shown that social media can affect the brain similarly to gambling and even cocaine use. (Annemarie Gorissen/iStock)

Don’t feel bad if you can’t curb your use with pure willpower. I refresh like a conditioned lab rat and have to remove myself from social networks by force. Luckily, browser extensions like WasteNoTime and StayFocusd can help you set time limits on distracting sites on your laptop; most smartphones have similar settings built into the screen time feature.

You can also stay up on the news without visiting a social media rabbit hole that keeps you there for hours. KQED has several newsletters in English and Spanish, and your other favorite news sources probably do, too.

Recognize when you’re not OK

Sometimes when we’re filled with worry, anxiety or distress, we reach for a distraction. “When we go to our phones as a way to pacify whatever uncomfortable feeling we’re sitting with, it takes away from our ability of regulating ourselves,” says Stamper.

Often, that convenient escape ends up filling us with more dread when we encounter upsetting content. The way out of that, Stamper suggests, is to get present and into your body. “Stop, look around, notice everything around you in a really deliberate sense,” he says. “It can be as simple as counting the lights on the ceiling or counting the amounts of picture frames and noticing what they look like.”

When facing anxiety, box breathing and body scan meditations also help. Inhale for four counts, pause for four and exhale for four until you calm your heart rate. Close your eyes and make note of your physical sensations from head to toe without judgment or explanations.

There’s a reason why meditation works: when you get present, you can identify your feelings more easily. And when you identify them, you can find more constructive ways to cope. Exercise, read a book (on paper), take a walk outside, call a friend, write in your journal, play an instrument or work on a craft. If you can, talk to a therapist.

And remember, we’re living through national crisis after national crisis. It’s a lot to handle. Remind yourself you’re doing your best.“It’s OK when things are really bad to feel distress,” Stamper says. “And you don’t have to amplify that distress by going on social media, because it will amplify it.”

Take action, feel better

One of the reasons social media can feel so overwhelming is that we’re exposed to tons of information about issues we can’t control. But there are many ways we can make a positive impact in our communities, and they’re often more gratifying than wasting hours online for the sake of “awareness.”

That could mean going to a protest, volunteering, joining an activist group or political campaign or taking the time to do something helpful for a friend, family member or neighbor. “I think it’s important to recognize how you can play a part in things you care about,” Stamper says. Tell yourself: “I’m here and I’m a part of this world and I’m going to be a part of it as best I can.”

Also, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the issues that keep us doomscrolling are often large and systemic, with decades- or centuries-long histories. “You and I aren’t going to solve climate change, we’re not going to solve the fires and this, that and the other thing,” Stamper says. “But we can play a small part, and we have to be OK with that.”

Make space for joy and relaxation

If I know I’m going to the internet just to have something to do, I often ask myself, will this make me happier? Usually, I find that the answer is no.

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A pleasant side effect of limiting your social media intake is that it gives you more time for more fulfilling activities, ones that nourish you emotionally and spiritually and allow for deeper rest. And, as 2020 has shown, we all need more of that.