What is doomscrolling? Meaning, and how social media is impacting mental health amid Russia Ukraine invasion

Using social media to stay up-to-date with situations around the globe as they are unfolding can be important for many, but it can also lead to ‘doomscrolling’

Social media sites are often the place that many people go to when keeping up to date with current affairs, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

However, graphic images and harrowing videos of that conflict - many of which are uncensored - are circulating widely in people’s feeds.

NationalWorld spoke to psychologists about what the impact could be to people’s mental health by seeing a war unfold on social media - and to find out more about ‘doomscrolling’.

What is ‘doomscrolling’?

Using social media to stay up-to-date with situations around the globe as they are unfolding can be important for many, but it can also lead to ‘doomscrolling’.

The term is becoming more commonly used to describe the act of constantly checking for updates and scrolling through social media when there’s a negative news story.

Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, said ‘doomscrolling’ is a “fascination of the human experience, including the more evil sides of human nature”.

She added that the act “can also give us a sense of being in control in moments that feel very out of control”.

“From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s a way of gathering as much information as possible to firstly check that we ourselves are safe but also allowing us to strategise in advance for anything that may happen,” she added.

What impact can ‘doomscrolling’ have on our mental health?

Although people may turn to ‘doomscrolling’ as a coping mechanism, Dr Touroni said when people “engage with very upsetting news in an ongoing way” - such as the conflict in Ukraine - it can also “have a negative impact on our wellbeing”.

Chartered psychologist Dr Audrey Tang said that this is because the brain benefits from neuroplasticity.

This means that while certain elements of our minds/brains are fixed, there are other parts of that can change depending on what we continually expose our minds to.

For example, people that meditate often can learn to focus and calm a previously overwhelmed mind, while those that respond to every notification on their phone will soon find it difficult to concentrate fully on one conversation.

Dr Tang added that constant exposure to anything via the media, such as the conflict in Ukraine, “can affect those chemical pathways”.

Addressing why imagery and video footage in particular can have such a profound impact on people, Dr Touroni said: “When we are able to put faces to individual stories like this it becomes easier to put ourselves in their shoes.

“It brings the realities of the horrors these people are suffering to life in a way that words sometimes can’t.”

The impact of social media on people living with PTSD

Those living with Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD) may also be affected by seeing traumatic content on social media.

Dr Tang said the condition is often triggered after an individual has faced a situation where they are in serious risk of death.

PTSD is often used to describe the trauma that war veterans experience following service.

She said it’s therefore likely that seeing the situation in Ukraine “could trigger horrible memories for those who have been through a similar lived experience or /threat to their life”.

Dr McClymont said if someone is a previous refugee or veteran then exposure to imagery that triggers their trauma “has a very significant impact on their mental health, in a way that other populations will not suffer”.

Imagery that triggers PTSD sufferers can induce panic attacks, or in extreme cases, a severe trauma response known as dissociation - an ‘out of body’ feeling - Dr McClymont added.

How long term the impact of footage and imagery has on people depends on how long we are exposed to that experience, as well as the severity of the trauma experienced, according to Dr Tang.

She said: “Seeing something completely horrific just once can make a lasting impression, in the same way as a constant drip feed might.”

For those with a tendency to ‘doomscroll’ or those who would like to reduce the impact seeing the horrors of war has on their mental health, Dr Touroni said it ultimately “comes down to individual responsibility”.

She added: “It’s about finding a balance between staying informed and doing everything we can to help whilst also tuning in to how we’re feeling. Setting defined limits around how much news we’re consuming can help with this.”