A global pandemic, lockdown, fluctuating COVID-19 cases, political corruption, and global instability that includes espionage by cell phone manufacturers and social media companies. The news is largely bad news.
“The trend of doomscrolling has never been higher than in 2020. The intersection of a health and financial crisis, the introspection of a lockdown, and increased screen time means that we have more access to local and international doom and gloom than ever before in history,” explains South Africa’s digital and social media expert, Dean McCoubrey from MySociaLife.
Can his claim be substantiated? If the pandemic had occurred a decade ago in 2010, the news surrounding the crisis would have been limited to just 2bn internet users. According to Statista, in 2020, there are now over 4.5bn users online with almost 4bn using social media and likely accessing news via the portable smart device in their bag or back pocket.
“When things go bad we can find out about it immediately due to social media feeds. They are spontaneous. Traditional news was never this quick. Moreover, the news that’s spreads online is not always factual,” he adds.
Despite some of the frightening and concerning things that are happening in the world, there are also many developments and reasons for positivity, especially being in the most advanced technology point in history. “Consider the development of the vaccine in which there are more than a few trials in advancing phases. If we saw a daily news report that opened on the latest development of the vaccine, would we see things slightly differently – with a little more hope?” he explains.
Negative news fuels fear and divisiveness as is now seen in politically unstable, or even apparently stable, countries like the United States.
“Consuming depressing or dramatic content affirms our belief that things are unsafe or dangerous. In one sense it makes us feel safe to confirm that the world is unsafe.”
McCoubrey questions if we didn’t consume as much negative media which include fake news, and are purposely driven to send more content of the same theme via its divisive algorithms, would we see people feeling less stress fear and anxiety?
“Would COVID-19 have been more manageable? (included space)Not less severe, but more manageable. Let me be clear that the news cycle has undoubtedly saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, but there is definitely the fallout of an infodemic. In schools, the number one lesson that our students asked for in our digital life orientation program last month – out of the eight modules which we offer – was mental health, and the second most requested lesson was tools to help focus. With teens having similar access to adults via social media their brains are not necessarily equipped to process or manage this flood of information, even if they appear technologically confident and competent.”
“Due to app penetration, hundreds of millions of teens are now their own media publishers on apps like TikTok, Instagram and Reels. Fake news posing as memes can just perpetuate, as many teens lack the critical thinking to ask enough questions about what is true or false, safe or dangerous. It’s all about understanding media and it’s influence – known as media literacy.”
Doomscrolling is the fuel that feeds the new ‘attention economy’. It keeps us coming back for more, either the need to feel safe or the need to be thrilled and be part of the conversation. That has always been the lure of news. But right now there’s more bad news, more introspection, and more access all rolled into one.
“Parents need to be conscious of what they are consuming, how their news consumption rubs off on their anxiety and how that impacts their kids. Teens openly share that it’s too much, and the adults need to play a larger role in the management of doom,” he continues.
Mccoubrey cites three important biases to consider when consuming the news:
- Negativity bias:This is where we focus on negative information, events or emotions more than their positive counterparts. This originally would have been used to keep us alert and therefore safe. But the same perils do not exist that used to hundreds of years ago. We are wired for caution more than may be required.
- Confirmation bias:If we have been exposed to a piece of information, often we can seekq to confirm that ‘fact’ by seeking supporting information, stories or data, despite conflicting stories which may not prove it to be conclusive.
- Availability bias: If we have been exposed to certain information or events, these are more ‘front and centre’ in our minds for a period of time, and we can overestimate their importance. They may have relevance, in some instances, but they could also be a snapshot of a moment in the news – and are not representative of the bigger picture in a country or city, for example.
“Yes, things are tough right now and there is no arguing they can be scary. But if we keep that flow of negative news coming in we will focus on that, and it’s hard to start seeing the positive aspects in every day. Ironically, that’s one way out. Take a break from the media and social media. You’ll be amazed by what happens, and it’s what the MySociaLife Program teaches teens and pre-teens in South African schools: how to navigate this complicated online landscape to be become safer, smarter and more savvy. This may be just as important as any other topic in school these days, given where we are headed in this decade,” McCoubrey concludes.