Opinion: From the pandemic to the presidency, we're doomscrolling ourselves sick

Doomscrolling till we're sick

She caught me red-handed.

I dropped my phone like it was on fire, tried to hide it under the pillow, but it was too late.

Her eyes narrowed: “What were you looking at?”

“Porn,” I blurted. “Terrible stuff. Please accept my heartfelt apologies.”

“Stop lying,” she replied. “You were doomscrolling.”

Busted. I hung my head in shame.

Doomscrolling, we are warned, is the newest great threat to our well-being. As addictive as Tiger King, as destructive as Trump with a microphone, doomscrolling is defined by Wikipedia as “the act of consuming an endless ­procession of negative online news.”

Also known as doomsurfing, it’s most commonly associated with the compulsion to spend what should be our bedtime hours obsessing over pandemic-related posts. We shiver under our sheets, eyes wide, the gloom relieved only by the pale light from our screens as we twist ourselves into knots with tale after tale of asymptomatic transmission rates, superspreader events and a future that sounds like Zombieland III. For those without a smartphone, you can achieve the same effect by jamming a fork into an electrical outlet and hanging on until your toes start to smoke.

The phenomenon has drawn predictable warnings. “Doomscrolling is slowly eroding your mental health,” cautioned Wired magazine this summer. “Checking your phone for an extra two hours every night won’t stop the apocalypse — but it could stop you from being psychologically prepared for it.” Psychology Today weighed in, citing studies in the U.S. and Russia that linked rising anxiety levels to the doomscrolling of ­coronavirus-linked content. The person credited with popularizing the term, Canadian journalist Karen Ho, now posts nightly reminders urging her Twitter followers to stop doomscrolling and go to bed.

Good luck with that. This week, news events conspired to turn doomscrolling into Victorians’ favourite hobby, bumping gardening and complaining about bike lanes to second and third place respectively.

Some Islanders sprained their thumbs frantically toggling between the latest numbers from A) the pandemic and B) Trumpistan. Having two drawn-out crises to fret about had us clutching our phones with one hand and our fluttering hearts with the other.

I shook her awake. “There were 197 new COVID cases in Egypt on Tuesday,” I told her, helpfully. “Forty-one people in serious or critical condition.”

She muttered something about another Canadian being critical if I didn’t shut off my phone, but that wasn’t going to happen, not with the U.S. presidency in the balance.

“CNN says Parsonsfield County could turn red,” I fretted.

“So could I,” she said.

“I didn’t know I cared about Parsonsfield County before,” I confided. “But now I think it could be the key to all of southwestern Maine. Did you know Maine is one of only two states to split its electoral college votes? The other is Nebraska. Speaking of Nebraska, seven COVID-19 cases in the panhandle region were traced to exposures at the Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota, where all but six of 66 counties voted for Trump. Do you think he’ll try to annex/move to Canada?”

She disappeared after that, presumably to the spare bedroom, though I don’t know why she needed a suitcase. Not that I really noticed, having stumbled across a rather alarming account of strange COVID symptoms — rashes, hair loss, a burning sensation on the soles of the feet — documented by a researcher at Indiana University. This, in turn, led me to a story about the Danes slaughtering millions of mink out of fear that they could pass on a mutant strain of the virus, which of course brought me to a piece about Tupperware profits soaring thanks to pandemic shut-ins cooking at home and storing the leftovers. It doesn’t take much to disappear down a Facebook rabbit hole.

Speaking of which, did you know a singer named Jaguar Jonze dislocated her shoulder while singing a song called Rabbit Hole on live Australian television? It’s true. I stumbled across that story, too. You can look it up. Or not, which might be the better option unless you want to pass out headfirst into your computer keyboard at 4 a.m., having meandered down a path that somehow led to a conspiracy theory involving one of the lesser-known Von Trapp children.

Or worse, you could make yourself sick relentlessly doomscrolling through posts about the pandemic and presidency.

Jack Knox is a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist

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