Teen scrolling on her phone with social media icons in the background

It’s late at night, you look at the clock and realize you’ve been scrolling through videos and social media headlines about global pandemics, mass shootings, and climate change for the past hour and a half. You know you should be sleeping, but somehow you keep getting drawn in. Why is this happening? Ask yourself these questions – Why is it so easy to scroll from one video to the next? Why do you keep watching even when the content stops making you feel good? Believe it or not, it’s all working as designed. In fact, it all comes down to algorithms.

What are Algorithms?
Algorithms are sets of programming rules that serve social media, streaming video, and online news users with content that is related to what they have already watched. From viral content to clickbait ads, algorithms allow companies to collect data that help them make your social media experience more personal. By targeting content to users’ interests, these platforms continue to feed viewers new items that keep them interested and coming back for more. So, why do they need you coming back for more? 

In the end, it all comes down to money. Social media companies, like most companies, are in the business of making money – which means they have to maintain a customer base. There is plenty of competition, and algorithms keep you coming back for more. As a result, companies profit from the advertising money and data they collect as you scroll, click, like, and comment. The platforms are designed to make the experience a never ending game, allowing users to infinitely scroll and swipe to get a constant library of content. The experience is so addictive that users keep scrolling and seeking out content, even when that content does not make them feel good. This experience is known as doomscrolling. 

What is Doomscrolling?
“Doomscrolling” is commonly defined as a habit of scrolling through social media and news feeds where users obsessively seek out depressing and negative information. Scrollers often feel upset about something going on in the news, so they seek out information that confirms how they feel, often ignoring or dismissing relevant information that doesn’t align with how they feel. In addition, there is no shortage of upsetting content. Social media is filled with worrisome news/global events and tragedies, from the pandemic to the war in Ukraine, large-scale protests – infringement on people’s rights, mass shootings, inflation concerns, climate change, devastating wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes – it never ends. The non-stop 24-7 news cycle makes doomscrolling possible. You can view as much as you want, as often as you want. 

How Does Doomscrolling Affect Young People?
Referencing the article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” by Jean Twenge, John Hopkins university researchers explain, “Gen Z has a unique, complex relationship with technology, the Internet, and social media. They were the first generation to grow up with omnipresent technology, and connectivity impacts every facet of their lives. Jean Twenge’s research shows that the influence of mobile technologies affects Gen Z across all socioeconomic, ethnic, and demographic backgrounds. It comes as no surprise that many self-identified stressors for young adults, including healthcare, mass shootings, politics, and current events, are exacerbated by excessive technology and social media use, as infinite scroll display has made it easier than ever to be sucked into an endless cycle of doomscrolling.” (source)

Many psychologists agree, highlighting the fact that young people often get their news through social media. A study conducted by Matthew Price, PhD, of the University of Vermont in Burlington, found an association between the amount of exposure to news on social media and more depression and PTSD symptoms. Our kids are spending much more time online than any other previous generation and more people are trying to link the increase in mental health issues to social media use. In January 2023, Seattle public schools sued several major social media companies, accusing them of exploiting the “vulnerable brains of youth” to make a buck. 

Less Doom & Gloom – What Can You Do as a Family?

  • Take a moment to notice how doomscrolling makes you feel. If you’re feeling sad, stressed, anxious or angry, that’s a sign to take a break.
  • Help your child seek out social media that makes them feel good about themselves. These can be social media accounts that encourage inclusivity, belonging, and personal growth.
  • Block or ignore peers who are toxic or sharing negative content.
  • Encourage your teen to evaluate the online community before participating in it. Are the comments/posts generally positive?
  • Model good social media practices. Monitor your own social media use in terms of what you post and how much time you spend on it.
  • Power down your devices at least 2 hours before you go to bed. Think about keeping phones or tablets out of the bedroom.
  • Support teens’ autonomy by allowing them to discover positive content on social media platforms, while keeping an eye on potentially negative content.