A habit to break: ‘Doomscrolling’

Brett Robinson



A June 25 WIRED magazine article described a new and dangerous habit that has become part of popular technology practices. "Doomscrolling" refers to the pattern of scrolling through social media in the midst of a pandemic and social unrest and being flooded with morbid messages that elicit an almost physical discomfort.

Reports of mental illness, especially among the lonely and isolated, have risen dramatically in the past few months. Why do so many willingly engage in a ritual that causes more mental anguish?

One line in the WIRED article really jumped out at me: "Each night ends the way the day began, with an endless scroll through social media in a desperate search for clarity." That sentence is telling.

"Each night ends the way the day began." Described this way, it seems the primary issue is not necessarily the troubling news we receive in vast quantities, but the rituals and habits we practice on a daily basis to "stay informed." Doomscrolling is a choice, and it has social consequences.

A Twitter user named @Almost_Anna put it this way: "Every marriage has one person who doom-scrolls and reads headlines out loud pre-coffee, and another person who is begging them to stop."

Our family has not been immune to this. Our morning conversations have been punctuated with questions like, "Have you seen our local virus numbers today?" and, "Did you see that they pulled down the statue of St. Junipero Serra in California?"

Our children often witness these hybrid conversations that tack back and forth between practical questions like, "Have you seen my car keys?" to paranoid ones like, "Do you think this is the beginning of the apocalypse?"

It is extremely disorienting for children to witness adult conversations that take place in this manner. They are, in effect, conversations that are part human and part machine. To remedy the situation, my wife and I had to make a choice.

We have tried banning phone use in the house altogether, and it simply doesn't work anymore. Every check of the weather or ding of the messaging app reels us back in for one more look. That leads to looking at more. And more. And down the rabbit hole we go.

We recently adopted a new ritual to redirect our experience of each "night ending the way the day began" by praying the Divine Office – on our phones. In the morning, when our five kids file in to say good morning, we give them all hugs and then promptly pick up our phones to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

The verses of the psalms ping-pong back and forth between me and my wife in a kind of elevated morning conversation, one that includes God's voice. We do the same thing in the evening before bed.

Doomscrolling becomes contemplative scrolling. The news of the external world takes a backseat to interior stirrings of the heart in lines that are perfectly composed for calming frazzled minds and providing a renewed sense of clarity.

The WIRED article attributed compulsive doomscrolling to a "search for clarity." It went on to say that all of this troubling news places a high mental and emotional demand on us. But the article's most haunting quote might have been that "there's no overarching narrative that helps us."

Yes, there is. Christianity is the antidote for our machine-generated conversations. By favoring the theological over the technological, our ultimate reality remains in view. Christ is the organizing principle by which we can make sense of world events and practice the little habits of "Christ-centered" conversation that short-circuit the machine's logic.

Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life. He writes "The Theology of Technology" column for Catholic News Service.