Doomscrolling is not activism.
We seem to think that we need to voraciously consume bad news to be engaged. The opposite is true.
Some time in the early-1990s, I remember reading a bumper sticker out loud to my mother and asking her what it meant.
IF YOU’RE NOT MAD, YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION
The sticker was fairly worn and we were in Eugene, Oregon, so I assume the owner of the vehicle had probably purchased and placed it in reaction to the decisions and actions of the first President Bush, though I can’t be certain. There were plenty of things to be mad about at that time — which is exactly what my mother told me. That there were lots of reasons to be mad and, if you weren’t, it was because, as the sticker chided, you weren’t paying attention.
My mother was not a politically-active person in the conventional sense; she didn’t go to rallies or work in campaign offices in rented storefronts. But she was, in her own way (and in the way of a lot of 90s moms, I think) ruthlessly engaged, tithing what she could to Planned Parenthood and writing scathing op-eds about abortion and taxes to our local paper.
She explained that, while it’s easy to ignore the scary, frustrating, or dangerous actions of politicians and corporations, it was our responsibility to vote and engage and remain vigilant.
Pay attention, basically. Stay mad. Do something about it.
I think a lot of us have internalized this idea — that just remaining involved is, in and of itself, the work. That in order to be Good People, we must pay absolutely unflinching attention to the plights of the world.
Where we have gotten off-track, though, is that we’ve carried this sentiment to its logical conclusion, which is that if paying attention is good, then paying attention to a lot of things must be better. Not only do we need to pay attention and stay mad, we need to pay attention to every single maddening thing and stay at a baseline of angry and upset literally all of the time.
The result is a toxic breed of awareness, and one which does much more harm than good. By inhaling a constant stream of second-hand tragedy — humanitarian crises, the devastation of our climate, rampant racism within the systems which yield the most power, take your pick—I am concerned that we won’t just be mad. I’m afraid we’ll be so mad that we no longer have the wherewithal to do anything about the things that made us mad in the first place.
This is not sustainable. Attention and the ability to care are not infinite resources that regenerate on their own. We can’t be mad all of the time because if we are, it gets really difficult to pay attention.
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Attention in the Age of Instagram Activism
Divided attention is not a new issue; before the age of industrialization, people were juggling all kinds of things that were demanded their attention as a matter of survival. In fact, a lot of people are still trying to strike this balance, which is why neuroscientists posit that people who are living in poverty display greater signs of impatience. They literally have to use more of their brain on survival skills, as opposed to, say, quibbling in neighborhood Facebook groups over other people’s problems, which creates undue stress.
What is new, though, is the kind of exposure we have to the oppressions, degradation, and mistreatment of other people, groups, or resources. Our social media feeds are full of complaints, petitions, requests for financial assistance, or general pleas for attention.
This is not an objectively bad thing. The movements which have formed as a direct result of organizing online are actively changing policies and forcing transparency from government agencies and organizations. The pressure that comes from digital organizing is real — lawmakers really do hate it when their mentions are full of people pointing out where they’ve harmed someone—and this is not at all meant to diminish that work.
For all of the folks who are doing this incredible hard work, there are thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands—more who will never write a letter, never give $5, never attend a march, never phone bank, never attend a Zoom City Council meeting. They are simply absorbing the weight of the world’s problems and feeling held down by them. And this, I think, is the crux of the problem with doomscrolling, as the kids call it. We can very easily be mentally exhausted just by bearing witness and be left with no energy to take the necessary next steps.
Laying in bed with one eye open on Saturday morning watching another Black person brutalized by police in a city across the country and then going back to sleep isn’t actually work.
This is not intended to shame anyone. There is no right way to be an activist and there is no right way to be engaged. But the key is actually being engaged.
Activism is exactly what it sounds live — it’s active. Which means to be engaging in activism, one must take action. And simply internalizing the feelings of uselessness and discomfort that social media has put right in our hands, in our faces, in our beds is not active. It is, by definition, passive.
And passive upset is one of the most training feelings a human being can experience.
As Dan Green writes in Think On Purpose, these feelings of passive sadness or helpless anger often create a cycle. We seek out things that make us feel bad because feeling bad kind of feels good, or it feels like what we’re supposed to do.
Inner Passivity often manifests itself in a concept referred to as “selected sadness.” Researchers have investigated how depressed people regulate their emotions and have found that many who are depressed often engage in maladaptive strategies that reinforce their depression, rather than seeking ways to diminish it.
In previous generations there were just as many things to mad about as there are today and probably more. Every generation has its challenges and, as human beings, we do a pretty terrible job of taking care of one another. Staying mad has fueled the battles for basic human rights, for equitable access to institutions, and for changes in policy and practice. But when that (probable) Subaru driver put that bumper sticker on their car, “paying attention” looked massively different than it does today.
But when my mom was writing scathing op-eds from her kitchen table in the early 1990s, her only exposure to other people’s problems were the daily newspaper and the 6 o’clock news. The rest of the time, she could read a book or file her nails without being constantly bombarded with more and different kinds of human misery.
Of course, just because our parents couldn’t see the real-time suffering of others didn’t mean others weren’t suffering. Imagine the ways that the narrative around the Civil Rights movement might have been changed if we had livestreams of the Freedom Riders being attacked. Imagine if more white people had seen, as it happened, just how grotesque they looked bullying literal children who were trying to go to school.
Then again, maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything at all. Maybe a lot of guilty white folks would have been glued to their screens, feeling upset and afraid, but unable to move from their couches to go do something about it.
The fact is that we are in a revolutionary era of media; the ability for marginalized people to capture and disseminate their own experiences has democratized storytelling. Protesters no longer need to wait for shellac-haired newscasters to wade into the mix followed by a camera and a boom mic to ensure that the abuses by cops get noticed.
By which I mean to say: You should absolutely not look away from the events of our lifetime. You should not ignore the corruption oozing from the White House, nor should you turn your eyes from your local and municipal elections.
But if you want to be one of the people who is helping to set some of these wrongs right, you have to know when you’re scrolling for good —and when you’re stuck in a cycle of scrolling as self-flagellation.
A Finite Resource
Doomscrolling is not a surprising reaction to the devices and media that we consume every day. With every story about a serial abuser or potential treason or too-cozy relationship between the President and an oligarch, we are reminded that there is always more. There are always more children being separated from their parents and held in cages at the border. There are always more rights that the Supreme Court seems poised to roll back. Flint still doesn’t have clean water. Indigenous people are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and reservation residents are not getting the help they need, but what else is new?
Maybe if you keep scrolling you’ll find the end. But if you stop, you might miss something really big. Really bad. Something that you really should have known about.
There is a kind of dark currency to knowing every single awful thing that happened today and ensuring that other people know it. If you don’t re-share an Instagram post about a rally, or an event, or a horrendous miscarriage of justice, how will people know that you are paying attention, that you are mad?
Ultimately, though, performing awareness is not anything. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t shift policy. Maybe it will expose someone in your feed to a new issue or problem, but, thanks to The Algorithm and the way that most of us self-select, the majority of our digital friend groups already hold similar values and thus, will not be swayed.
In a previous sentence, I referred to doomscrolling as a kind of self-flagellation. I think this is especially true for white people with means, or those with any kind of privilege. We feel like it’s our duty to fully internalize the struggles of those who have been silenced and marginalized for so long. This is accurate; we do need to spend a lot of time and energy listening and learning in order to be the kind of accomplices that we should. And often, donning the hair shirt of everything terrible on Twitter feels like that’s exactly what we should be doing — enduring discomfort for the purpose of learning a lesson.
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This becomes a problem when we are no longer capable of actually doing the second part of that process, which is showing up for equity and justice. Using our privileges, whatever those may be, to push forth changes in the legislature, in our organizations, or in our communities.
If you scroll yourself into a depressive heap, you have not done the important thing.
You may think that you’re immune to this—that all of your late-night reading about Russian hacking doesn’t impact you that badly—but you would be incorrect. There is a litany of research on the impacts of constantly being upset by new information.
We respond more quickly to bad news than we do to good news, and with more of a physical response. That means for every one bad tweet you see, you’d need to see and linger on a handful of videos of men rescuing baby ducks. The release of the stress hormone cortisol can turn a virtual experience into a very present, bodily one. This kind of anxiety reaction may take minutes or even hours to wind down, meaning just a little bit of pre-bed scrolling can ensure crummy sleep. And we make it worse by visiting a plethora of sites. In a 2017 article published by the American Psychiatric Association, researchers proposed that using numerous platforms could increase that stress because each one has different rules and, in a lot of ways, slightly different audiences. The more you hop from Instagram to Twitter and back to TikTok, the worse you may find yourself feeling.
Or, to make a quick point of it: Doomscrolling makes you feel bad. And when you feel bad, you have a harder time doing good.
I believe that this is the most critical issue with doomscrolling as a method of feeling engaged. The practice of constantly being immersed in things that not only make us feel shitty but make us feel helpless and impotent saps the resources that you have to go out and do good work because, regretfully, you are not a bottomless fount of energy and empathy.
It’s a new facet of a problem that has haunted the species since we crawled from the bog. We are limited. And we have to appreciate those limitations if we want to get any damn thing done.
Some righteous indignation is positive — even necessary, especially for those of us with any privileges. We should be feeling uncomfortable and we should be learning as much as we can about they ways we’ve been complicit within structures of oppression. We do need to wear the hair shirt for a little bit.
But if the ultimate goal is to be an active participant for change —to do good work and be useful to the movements that you, personally, care most about—we have to also treat ourselves and our attention and empathy as resources that need to be nurtured and tended to.
You don’t have to scroll through every awful thing that happened today. Merely laying your eyes upon another gutting piece of bad news will not effect change—just because you are aware doesn’t mean you’re doing the work.
Pay attention. Be mad. But know that sometimes you have to take a break.