Doomscrolling and Screen Time: Do You Need a Digital Detox?

Notifications are helpful but can significantly distract us from important daily activities, such as exercise, making a healthy meal, and work or school obligations. One distracting message can induce an hour-long rabbit hole. For some of us, this turns into a doomscrolling habit that heightens anxiety.

Key takeaways:
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    Living through a crisis like the pandemic may have created unhealthy habits such as excessive social media usage that disrupt daily life.
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    Some personality traits cause more vulnerability to a crisis triggering the need for constant information and reassurance as a coping mechanism.
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    Understanding our vulnerabilities can help us set up supportive strategies to strengthen our resolve during a digital detox.
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    Smartphones have various tools for managing notifications which can help reduce distractions.

Many products and experiences are available for a digital detox, but do you need to spend a dime on any of them? How can we manage screen time without missing important work, family, or emergency notifications?

Social media use offers people many ways to stay connected despite the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. The benefits of social media use include sharing pictures and stories with friends and family, building a support network, finding a sense of community, and developing one’s identity. However, social media overuse can also increase anxiety, depression, fear of missing out (FOMO), bullying, and create body image issues.

How much time do people spend on their devices?

According to a February 2021 survey of US adults, more than half of respondents spend at least five hours a day on their smartphone outside of work usage. For 1 in 10 Americans, at least seven hours a day outside of work is spent on a mobile device. These screen times are despite 4 out of 5 respondents reporting that they use an app to limit device usage.

The correlation between anxiety and depression

Not all social media is harmful, but it appears that dosage matters. In a survey of young adults ages 18 to 22 conducted before the pandemic, those who spent more time on social media had higher anxiety levels. Another pre-pandemic, nationally representative survey of more than 5,000 Americans linked objective measures of Facebook usage with physical health, mental health, life satisfaction, and body mass index (BMI). Overall, Facebook usage negatively correlated with well-being.

Not all screen time is bad, so what is the concern?

Many people use social media to build community, share life’s joys, and stay connected. These are all very positive outcomes. However, the pandemic unleashed a daily torrent of concerning news. For many of us, a desire to stay informed turned into an obsession, leading to a strong need for reassurance.

Doomscrolling is a relatively new term characterized by frequently scrolling through social media apps or news feeds for information about crises or tragedies. Unfortunately, doomscrolling can cause users to spiral into compulsive internet use, social media addiction, depression, anxiety, and poorer quality of life.

Are some people more vulnerable to doomscrolling?

The “big five” personality traits — neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience — may provide insights regarding how personality affects our digital life. These traits have been extensively studied and tend to be fairly stable across age ranges and cultures.

Extroverted people tend to have stronger reactions to positive emotions, while those who tend toward neuroticism react stronger to negative emotions such as sadness and anxiety. People who rate high in conscientiousness tend to favor order and manage time well.

A meta-analysis of personality traits and problematic phone use found that agreeableness — exhibiting the characteristics of trust, cooperation, compliance, and flexibility — and conscientiousness was protective against problematic phone use.

In contrast, those scoring higher on neuroticism were indeed found to be more likely to doomscroll. Other studies have found a similarly convincing relationship between neuroticism and problematic phone use thought to arise from a strong need for reassurance and a tendency to use the phone as an external coping tool.

Do you need a digital detox?

  • Do you tend to lose track of time when reading bad news using a particular app?
  • Do you feel compelled to check your email whenever a notification comes in?
  • Do you feel depressed, anxious, or angry when using a particular app?
  • Are you unable to go to sleep without your phone?

Could understanding my personality type help me detox?

A study of doomscrolling conducted by University of Florida researchers suggests that self-awareness can help manage digital device usage. While we may tend toward one personality trait, which may make us more vulnerable to doomscrolling, individuals are multi-faceted. Some traits, such as conscientiousness and agreeableness, are protective. Setting up supportive strategies is an important step toward regaining control over an unhealthy relationship with a news feed or social media app.

Conscientious people manage their behaviors to support achieving their goals. For example, they will be more likely to avoid using their phone while driving, get their chores done, and have an idea of what to cook for dinner most nights. Highly agreeable people tend to be kind toward others and unselfish, with interpersonal support systems which reduce their need for digital reassurance. If you find that it is hard to stick to certain routines and often lose track of time while scrolling, you can use your phone’s onboard notification management systems to help do the heavy lifting of maintaining conscientious phone use.

A digital detox does not need to be complicated or expensive

There are many ways to do a digital detox — you do not need to wait for a vacation, travel to a remote location, or buy anything. A digital detox can simply be a set of strategies that help you regain control of how you use your phone.

You can start by reviewing your notifications and deciding which ones deserve to interrupt you. Use your onboard screen time tools to track your usage for a week before putting the rest of these strategies to work for you.

Set your phone to silent or use Pixel’s “flip to Shh” to mute notifications while you work, eat dinner with the family, or get together with a friend.

Ensure that important family or business connections are marked as emergency contacts in your contact list so that their calls always get through.

Setting your screen to dim when it is bedtime will help remind you to put the phone down.

Grouping distracting apps prevents you from seeing the indicator for new messages.

Getting involved in a weekly sport, class, or get-together can help you set up new routines away from your phone.

Schedule a call with a friend once a week while you walk.

Zip your phone into a pocket while you are walking the dog instead of multitasking.

Plan a trip to a place with little connectivity, such as a hike, fishing, or weekend getaway.

If you love podcasts, establish a queue so that you can look forward to your next drive or workout and avoid losing time browsing for a fresh pod.

Certified Life Coach and Recovery Coach Susanne Navas has worked with teens and adults who were concerned about their scrolling habits. "Social media is designed to keep us engaged, which is money in the bank for Big Tech. The more we click and scroll, the more they make from advertisers.” And like with any other media, the more content is designed to fire us up, the less we can resist engaging. “It makes sense that certain personality traits and mental health states are more vulnerable to the bait,” Navas agrees. “Awareness is key, as is a conscientious effort to unplug and engage in non-virtual activities and relationships.”

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