All of us, today. | Getty Images
This is a doomscrolling checkpoint. Maybe get up and drink some water.
It was noon today, November 3, when I got my first warning to log off Twitter. It came from possibly the least likely source I could have imagined, a man whose job literally relies on people staring at the internet: Nate Silver, the founder of the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight, which has been publishing 2020 election predictions for what feels like 100 years.
But now, Nate Silver was saying what we all know to be true despite everything we’ve tried to glean from poll analyses over the past few months: “You’re not going to learn anything useful about the election outcome on here until 7pm,” he wrote, “when they start counting votes.” Unfortunately, he’s right: Twitter does not have the answers right now because nobody does.
Did Nate Silver’s tweet make me log off of Twitter? Of course not! Like everyone I know and quite possibly you too, I am spending this day refreshing every social media feed for tiny crumbs of information that will turn out to be mostly useless, despite the fact that when anything actually important happens we will all receive simultaneous alerts on our phones. There is no rush to be the first to hear the news, and yet today, we are all doomscrollers.
Doomscrolling, or the masochistic practice of compulsively scouring the internet in search of ever more terrible information, might be our nation’s most popular pastime in the year 2020. Though the term has been around since at least 2018, it surged in popularity this March when Americans were stuck inside due to the coronavirus pandemic and desperate for updates on the latest case counts and advisories.
The Quartz reporter Karen K. Ho has been a big part of that surge thanks to her nightly reminders on Twitter to step away from your screen. “Hey, are you still doomscrolling?” reads a typical post. “This week is going to be pretty tough for a lot of people. It’s worth trying to conserve your mental and physical energy by not staying up too late, limiting your time on this website, and prepping a few meals in advance.”
hi, are you still doomscrolling?
The rest of this week is going to be pretty intense and the election requires a lot of additional energy to manage.
While staying up late can feel like an act of agency, how about directing it towards taking care of yourself and going to sleep?
— Doomscrolling Reminder Lady (@karenkho) November 3, 2020
Karen saw the term on Twitter for the first time in March and realized she’d been guilty of the practice since at least 2015. By April, when she started a new full-time job, she knew she needed to fix her habit of staying up until the wee hours of the morning looking at the news, and she began tweeting, mostly to herself, that she should start winding down. Within a few months, she’d gained 20,000 new followers thanks to her daily doomscrolling reminders (some of her followers have even sent her gifts and money on Venmo).
She still, however, understands the desire to doomscroll. “It feels productive and like we’re exercising our agency during a period where we can’t do much and so much choice and variety has been taken away, even though it’s often neither of those things,” she tells me. “Everyone was taught ‘knowledge is power’ and learning more can often help us make better choices.” Yet all we’re really doing, she argues, is taking time away from the things and people we love, while playing into the hands of technology companies that are incentivized to keep us glued to screens.
It is probably not shocking to learn that doomscrolling is bad for you. Clinical psychologist Amelia Aldao explained to NPR that though humans are naturally predisposed to look out for threats, doomscrolling creates a vicious mental health cycle. “The more time we spend scrolling, the more we find those dangers, the more we get sucked into them, the more anxious we get,” she says. “Now you look around yourself and everything feels gloomy, everything makes you anxious. So you go back to look for more information.”
That information, however, becomes less valuable as we overload on it. Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley warned in the New York Times, “You have to realize you don’t want to live your life in a hamster wheel of complete news consumption. It’ll take a toll on you in the way that stops becoming valuable, and being an informed person is a diminishing return.”
There are ways to ward off the doomscroll cycle: Aldao recommends setting a timer or swapping the habit with a happier one, like eating a bowl of ice cream or sending something funny to a friend. But people like Karen are trying to meet doomscrollers where they are: scrolling through their social media timelines.
“EENGH!” blared a TikTok video on my feed about a year ago. It featured the face of Brittany Tomlinson, a popular comedy creator, holding up her hand to the screen and mimicking a mechanic buzzer. “This is a checkpoint. Go get some water, stretch, relax your shoulders, and keep scrolling,” she said.
The video was likely just a joke, but it worked: I did need to drink some water, and I had no idea how tense my shoulders were until she told me they were. There’s been an uptick in social media posts like this, some that grab viewers’ attention with anime characters or K-pop stars then warn them to take a break. Along with viral missives to drink water, they’re all part of the category of internet culture loosely defined as “wholesome memes,” which my colleague Constance Grady explains came about in the wake of the surge in alt-right activists online in the mid-2010s and their memes’ many layers of irony and anti-sincerity.
“A wholesome meme, in contrast, is wonderfully straightforward,” she writes. “There’s a little playful hyperbole to the language, but by and large, a wholesome meme looks like a cat failing to hide under a box, and it is a cat failing to hide under a box.”
It is now much more acceptable — and even, perhaps, cool — to be sweet to each other online. That’s why, in the midst of an exceptionally difficult year, we’re seeing so many more reminders to take care of ourselves. With so little support from the government in the wake of the pandemic, people are sharing plans about how to get through Election Day (or however long it takes to determine the winner), and some companies are paying their employees to serve as poll workers.
Karen’s doomscrolling reminders have meanwhile only grown more popular. “I definitely notice many more likes, comments, and personal DMs from people who actively tell me how much it’s changed the way they see their own digital consumption patterns,” she says. “Some people actually don’t go to sleep until they see the nightly reminder, which I find a little surreal.”
Consider this your reminder, at least for right now, on this very weird day and maybe in the days to come: Drink some water. Close the websites you don’t absolutely need to be reading. The doom and gloom — and maybe even the small glimmers of hope — will still be there when you return.