A stream of stressful news is causing millions of Americans to check the latest developments via their social media feed, giving rise to the term “doomscrolling,” i.e. the act of continuing to scroll through bad news even though it’s disheartening or depressing. As protests against white supremacy and police brutality continue to loom over our news feeds, the impact of doomscrolling is becoming increasingly personal.
For queer men of color specifically, the effects of mental health issues can be invisible and are often magnified by the impacts of status, competition, and racism within the LGBTQ+ community itself.
According to a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and led by John Pachankis, an associate professor of public health and psychiatry at Yale University, men from cultures around the globe are driven to prove their manhood, making subcultures composed entirely of men even more likely to be status-conscious.
Social media, by its very nature, is fueled by a desire for status and influence. However, the need to be part of the community discussion can turn us sour and misinformed. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said during an interview at a TED conference last year that “toxicity” was one of Twitter’s biggest problems, which he thought could be lessened if the numbers of likes and followers weren’t providing “incentives” for the wrong things.
Of course, the emotional impact of social media can be different depending on the person. It’s also helping some stay calm during the current lockdown. As protests persist, Black LGBTQ+ people are turning to Instagram accounts like @BlackQueerJoy and other expressions of Black joy as an act of resistance.
“Doomscrolling for Black people works in the inverse—we’re actually trying to look for something separate and apart from bad things,” Allissa Richardson, author of the book Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, said in an interview with Wired. “For many non-Black Americans, this has been an incredibly enriching time, and doomscrolling for them is a deep dive into the things maybe they weren’t educated well about in the first place or maybe did have an inkling about but were ignoring.”
It’s important to note, however, that our attraction to triggering news may also have an evolutionary purpose. As Pamela B. Rutledge writes in Psychology Today, our brains instinctively pay attention to potentially dangerous situations “as part of the biological imperative of survival,” and therefore it’s nearly impossible to turn the other way when we sense an imminent threat, even if that “threat” is on a tiny screen. This leads to even more anxiety and stress, and the more stressed out we are, the more vulnerable we are to misinformation in our search for answers. We can begin the cycle all over again.
It’s also difficult to navigate the debate over the effects social media can have on our mental health. A study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Abnormal Psychology in March 2019 surveyed hundreds of thousands of young people and found that cultural trends in the last 10 years have led to an increase in mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes for youth. But a 2018 poll by Common Sense Media found that most teens said social media makes them feel better, not worse, about themselves.
Good news always seems one click away, though, which is what keeps us scrolling during those late nights. Researchers at the University of Glasgow found that teenagers using social media for more than three hours a day are more likely to go to bed close to midnight and wake in the middle of the night.
As we reach over 180K deaths in America from COVID-19, videos of innocent Black people being targeted by white supremacy continue to play on a loop across our news feeds, and constant reminders of Donald Trump’s lack of leadership fuels our anxiety even further. Doomscrolling is a short-term response to uncertainty.
Some activists are attempting to change these outcomes from within by hitting social media where it hurts most: its revenue. As a form of protest over Facebook’s handling of hate speech and misinformation, big-name companies—including Coca-Cola, Verizon, and Starbucks—pulled their ads from the platform this summer. The boycott was organized by the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which includes such civil rights groups as the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Free Press, and Color of Change.
Stop Hate for Profit says 99 percent of Facebook’s $70 billion annual revenue comes from advertising. The group has justified the boycott by saying Facebook has incited violence against protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death as well as “turned a blind eye” to voter suppression in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Plus, there is virtually no regulation when it comes to misinformation or identity-targeted hate speech.
In response to the boycott, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that while the company will put warning labels on content that potentially conveys misinformation or encourages inappropriate behavior, it will allow it to be posted. He said this gives users a chance to “condemn it,” which is an “important part of how we discuss what’s acceptable in our society.”
Since its inception, social media has been a personal safe space for LGBTQ+ youth looking for guidance, as long as they know where to look.
Studies indicate that queer youth rely more heavily on social media than other groups to find health information. That activity could be reading Tumblr blogs about gender transition, watching YouTube testimonials or transition videos, or participating in private Facebook groups about coming out.
“LGBTQ young people engage in a variety of identity management strategies, including monitoring their online self-expression, using privacy and security controls, strategically managing their friendship networks, creating multiple accounts, curating and editing personal photographs, and restricting LGBTQ-related [content] to other, more anonymous online contexts,” Michelle Birkett of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing at Northwestern University and her coauthors noted in a study researching identity management and the online social networks of LGBTQ+ youth.
Having control of our public persona and identity is also a driving force behind our need to scroll and search, and social media allows us to share some information without full disclosure. The Trevor Project found that only 36 percent of queer youth have shared about their sexual orientation online, and only 30 percent have opened up about their gender identity.
So, what can we take from this? Wherever you land on the doomscrolling scale, one thing is certain: Doomscrolling will never fend off doom, though we often assume it will, like how some think repeatedly pushing an elevator button will make it arrive faster. The truth is we have always been in control of the content we digest. Now, more than ever, it’s important to use that power.