How to Stop ‘Doomscrolling’ and Love Your Phone Again

Not all screen time is created equal

Photo by Tayler Smith. Prop Styling by Caroline Dorn

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today to give you a better tomorrow.

The “doomscroll” may be one of the defining behaviors of quarantine. Like 9 a.m. Cosmos, hours upon hours of The Bachelor reruns, and a debilitating fear of crowds, a habitual doomscroll — in which a person subjects themselves to scrolling through social media or the news on their phone or laptop as screaming opinions and bad news begin to blur together in a steady stream of terror — may stick around as something we’ve grown accustomed to doing all day, every day.

Subjecting yourself to incessant, heartbreaking headlines and flickering images of surgical masks, busy hospitals, morgues, and crowded parks is pretty damn bad for your mental health, unsurprisingly.

But not all screen time is created equal. The doomscroll is accurately named, but actively participating in online conversations — being vulnerable and intimate with friends via text and social media, or even with strangers on places like Reddit — can actually be good for your brain. So while it’s never a bad idea to step away from social media and focus on real-life tasks like jigsaw puzzles and baking, if you’re going to be online, you might as well pipe up and engage in sincere, in-depth conversations with friends, family, and even people you don’t know in online forums where you feel safe.

Research from 2016 shows that people who “lurk” on Facebook — passively scrolling and viewing without chiming in — are more likely to experience stress and poor mood than those who actively participate in conversations on the platform. A more recent longitudinal study from 2019 found that it isn’t the quantity of screen time that makes a difference to your mental health but the quality of it. Noncommunicative social media use, in which users more or less doomscroll, really is depressing. But “self-disclosure,” in which the user has honest and possibly vulnerable conversations with friends or even anonymous strangers, can lead to a sense of togetherness and relief and reduce loneliness.

Other research, including this study from 2017 and this one from 2016, find similar results, adding to a growing body of evidence that internet use is all about quality, not quantity, at least where your mental health is concerned (vision and spinal problems caused by hunching over your phone without blinking for hours is another story). A moving 2019 study that interviewed women who open up about their miscarriages on Facebook found that many of them found a strong sense of companionship and emotional relief and had powerful, emotional interactions and discussions with other people who had experienced similar trauma. “I guess it made me feel less alone,” one woman said in an interview for the study. “It made me feel less inappropriate for sharing the information.”

As many of the women in the miscarriage-disclosure study assert, though, it’s often really hard to open up anywhere, let alone putting it in writing in a semipublic space like a Facebook group. I struggle with this myself. Time I spend on Reddit is typically confined to lurking and maybe, at the most, upvoting; I’ve only ever piped up in my preferred subreddits (r/suggestmeabook and r/femalefashionadvice, if you’re curious) a handful of times. On Twitter, I sometimes feel anxious about chiming in on topics I’m passionate about. But I primarily use both platforms on my laptop, rather than my smartphone, which — according to fascinating research that came out this month — might be part of the problem.

The study found that people are more likely to open up or “self-disclose” on their smartphones than their laptops. This happens for a couple of reasons. First, because the phone is small, it forces the user to focus on the task at hand, making them less likely to get distracted by other stimuli that might cause them to pause before discussing something personal or private (the study doesn’t address push notifications, but research and copious personal experience both show they can be distracting, so it is fair to assume that users would be momentarily diverted if they, say, got a text from their mom). Secondly, users have such intimate relationships with their own phones that they’re more comfortable talking about personal things there than on their laptops, or even on someone else’s phone.

“Because our smartphones are with us all of the time and perform so many vital functions in our lives, they often serve as ‘adult pacifiers’ that bring feelings of comfort to their owners,” Shiri Melumad, one of the researchers behind the study, said in a press release. The pacifier effect, which Melumad discusses in another study published earlier this year, emerges because the phone is comfortable to touch and hold, is intensely personal, and seems to afford the user privacy. Essentially, the phone is like a safe space or a “room of one’s own,” where a person can go to feel comfortable enough to have conversations they might not feel comfortable having on another device.

This ease of disclosure found on the smartphone could even be useful for people struggling with creative pursuits, says Melumad. Though she cautions that she doesn’t explicitly study creativity, she says “there is reason to expect that the factors that I show drive differences in self-disclosure — namely, the enhanced psychological comfort we experience on our phone, and the greater attentional narrowing on the tasks we engage in on the device — might similarly yield to the creation of more creative content.” Because the smaller keyboard and screen serve as limiting factors, users tend to be more focused on what they’re doing and less prone to distraction, she says. “My findings suggest that users would similarly narrow their attention on a creativity task they engage in on their phone — rather than on external factors that might otherwise inhibit creativity — which may in turn enhance the quality of the work they’re producing.”

I have definitely experienced this, and, in fact, employed it while working on this piece. I was trying to find a way in — I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to frame this story, though I knew I had plenty of fascinating material to work with. I decided to apply the finding that it’d be easier to disclose on my smartphone and went to the window, taking my phone and leaving my laptop behind. As I stood there, I was struck by an unexpected bolt of clarity and was able to shoot off an email to myself via my phone that laid out what I needed to do with the article.

The actual writing, of course, happened on my computer. I love a big screen and even multiple screens, as I’ve discussed in previous columns. But for certain situations, like distraction-free brainstorming or engaging in meaningful text or Reddit conversations, a smartphone might be your best bet. It’s absolutely a tip I’m going to take in the future when I’m stuck, whether it’s working through a difficult problem on a work in progress or having a difficult discussion via Twitter direct message with an acquaintance.

Not every conversation is well-suited to the smartphone, says Melumad. “If I need to respond to a work email, or engage in a more serious exchange with a friend,” she says, “I will hold off until I can use my laptop to do so.”

I’ve had a pretty contentious relationship with the internet in the past couple months. It can sometimes feel like it’s a relentless stream of unhappiness, as terrible news continues to bubble up without a break. But it’s genuinely comforting to know that my smartphone can serve an emotionally crucial role, too; of course, it’s where I have meaningful, funny, conversations with friends and family, and, now, I know I can depend on it when I’m stuck on a work in progress. Maybe I’ll even start chiming in with book recommendations on Reddit. I think the legion of Brandon Sanderson and Terry Pratchett fans who congregate there could certainly use them.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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