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‘I sniffed out good news like a bloodhound’: how I broke my doomscrolling habit | Mental health

George Resch loves two things in this world: “Making people think a little bit more positively, and making them laugh.” A former fence salesman from Long Island, New York, Resch is now the creator of the wildly popular (2.5 million followers) positive news outlet Tank’s Good News, set up in September 2017 after he saw a picture of an old woman being rescued from her living room in Texas during the floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. Inspired by the image’s portrayal of “triumph in the tragedy” – she was on the back of a jet ski doing a double thumbs up – Resch, 41, began posting similar images: a young woman food shopping for an elderly couple too scared to get out of their car during peak pandemic in Oregon, or the homecoming queen who gave her crown to a recently bereaved classmate. Resch believes the appeal of his posts is simple: “It’s a hit of dopamine when you’re scrolling through doom and gloom.” Every day, he is inundated with messages from people saying he has saved their life.

Speaking to Resch is an oddly emotional experience for me. Last year, Tank’s Good News became my lifeline. Desperate to find my way out of postnatal depression (PND) after the birth of my second child, I stopped reading the news, logged off social media and immersed myself in Tank’s stories of optimism. Before this, I had never been one to put up my blinkers. I thought it dangerous and foolish to ignore bad news. Like many journalists, “keeping informed” verged on compulsion, born out of professional obligation and fear of ignominy. But last summer I felt raw; fire-hosed by information and stimuli. I’d wake up feeling terrified, before indulging in a bout of doomscrolling (the excessive consumption of bad or anxiety-inducing news online). I would find myself lost in unverified stories and furious hot takes on social media, leaving me drained of energy, yet too jittery to sit still.

At first, I thought it was my long-term anxiety, diagnosed in my late 20s but present since childhood, merely dialled up. But after I explained the curious combination of lethargy and fury to a perinatal psychiatrist – “I’m not sad, I’m furious” – I received a diagnosis of PND. There had been warning signs that I ignored, of course. A sliver of a maternity leave, insomnia for years, a wobble when I’d had my first child the year before, a book deadline that hung over my newborn charge. Then my oldest friend lost her little boy and my trust in the world leaked away. I felt like a watered down person, with no conviction, or purpose. I was a book left in the sunshine too long: spine unglued and pages flying away. As I shrank smaller and smaller, the world loomed larger. I’ve always been sensitive to noise, but now I felt electric: a forest fire, burning with shame and fear. If anyone so much as brushed past me, I almost threw up. I was convinced I was being watched. I was ashamed to be feeling so furious, so lost, so shattered. I had a wonderful life, I thought (furiously). Why couldn’t I snap out of it? But it felt as if that life was trapped behind glass, and I was the taxidermied ferret, with a frozen rictus grin.

These were not ideal conditions in which to publicise a book. I have never felt more of a fraud than in those months when I made a cheery weekly podcast, or gabbed on a radio show about my new book. I knew I needed to find a way of shutting out the world as much as possible, while still being able to do my job. (As a freelance writer, taking a sabbatical or decent maternity leave never occurred to me.) The answer came to me suddenly, and all at once: banish bad news. I already switched off my phone regularly – installing a landline so that my mother could reach me instead of leaving me 48 voicemails in a row, at 10-minute intervals – but now I kept it turned off for days at a time, learning of “bad” news only when my husband or friends told me, or when I had to research something for work.

Instead, I sniffed out positive news platforms like a bloodhound, replacing the hours I had previously spent reading newspapers surfing them instead: the Happy Newspaper, the Good News Movement, Upworthy, the Good News Network, Positive News, the Guardian’s Upside. (Pleasingly, they all come as websites, too, meaning I didn’t have to go on social media.) It was not, I soon discovered, a matter of one or two outlets – this was an entire good news movement. As I dived into them, it occurred to me to question the idea that only bad news is newsworthy. What if “joyscrolling” – scrolling fervently through sites dedicated to uplifting or positive news – is just as important?

In the 60s, President Lyndon B Johnson complained about the lack of optimistic news in Time magazine to its publisher and editor, Henry Luce. Luce replied: “Mr President, good news isn’t news. Bad news is news.” A negative bias in the news is an evolutionary necessity. You needed to know the bad news (a bear outside your cave) in order to prepare and defend yourself. This is true of today, particularly during the pandemic, but many of us were hooked on the 24/7 news cycle, and reading urgent hourly bulletins late at night, long before Covid-19.

It is not the case that the news has got worse – given how subjective the idea of “good” and “bad” news is, this is impossible to prove. The problem, according to behavioural and data scientist Pragya Agarwal, is more that we “find ourselves compelled, in a world of instant gratification and on-demand entertainment, to be informed of the news instantly” . Critical reasoning takes time, which is why Twitter now asks, “Have you read this article?” before you retweet it. Every expert I speak to cites 2016 and “the fake news crisis” as a key shift towards anxiety around news consumption. Where once we received our news from trusted sources – Agarwal says we attributed a “status bias” to news sources, simply because there were so few of them – many of us now receive it from unverified content producers, via social media. Getting your news from Facebook or TikTok, for instance, presents a further problem. As Pooja Lakshmin, a perinatal psychiatrist and founder of women’s health platform Gemma, says: “What does it mean to see the news in that same place that you also see memories and emotions?”

It is not unusual to sidestep the news cycle during new motherhood, especially if you find you are depressed. “I was so furious at the world when I had PND that I wanted no active part in it,” says the writer Emma Jane Unsworth, whose memoir After the Storm explores her experience of PND. “Avoidance felt like defiance. Being politically unaware made me feel like I was getting some kind of revenge.” Postnatal depression soared in 2020 – research from UCL found that new mothers were more than twice as likely to experience it during the first lockdown than before the pandemic. Lakshmin encourages temporary, selective news consumption when you have a new baby, but also “during any extreme period of personal stress” – such as grief or divorce – where you might “find yourself spiralling and struggling to self-regulate”. She also stresses that disengagement should always be temporary.

But you don’t need to be depressed to feel compelled to quit the 24/7 news cycle. The BBC noted that while there had been an initial hike in news broadcasting figures in March 2020 (even from gen Z, who typically eschew nightly TV news), they plunged back down again a month later, as people felt overwhelmed with information that was good and bad, but mainly uncertain. The two largest news stories of the last few years – coronavirus and the climate crisis – both remain unresolved, unpredictable and urgent. Uncertainty is even worse for you than bad news, according to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. “It is not hyperbole for me to tell you that I think all this uncertainty is a serious public health issue,” she says.

Photo illustration of woman holding mobile phone, standing in the centre of a daisy with other flowers all around
‘What does it mean to see the news in that same place you see memories and emotions?’ Illustration: Nicolás Ortega/The Guardian

Speaking to friends, I realise that many of them are looking for, if not an escape, then a breather. They have secret joy rituals. Emily begins her day with videos of orcas, finding calm in their expansive inky blackness. Rosie watches videos of nuns on TikTok. Mary, a lawyer, and Andrew, a yoga instructor, have set up a side project called Hello Stranger, where they leave stamped blank postcards with Mary’s address written on them, around London, with a small note at the top asking people to share some happy news. To date, they have left 500 postcards and received 300 back. For those of us who feel anxious when anything is left unresolved, simple acts of routine, or completion, can be a vital salve. A woman goes shopping. An orca crashes its tail. A room of nuns hole-punch a sheet of unleavened bread with military efficiency, to create perfectly rounded communion wafers, over and over again.

The term “doomscrolling” was coined in a tweet in 2018, but popularised by business journalist Karen Ho in spring 2020, after she noticed how many people were hunched over their screens consuming excessive amounts of negative news, with faces like Munch’s Scream. Ho started by simply asking her followers every night on Twitter: “‘Hey, are you doomscrolling?’ and people were like, ‘Ohhhh, that’s what I’m doing!’” In response, she issued simple, daily self-care reminders – take a break from the screen, stop slouching, stretch your legs, grab a glass of water – and in autumn of last year, created @doomscroll_bot on Twitter to send regular reminders.

Ho says there is a key difference between doomscrolling and preparation – using the news as it was designed, to stay informed and make safe decisions based on that information. She ticks off healthcare policies, public health measures and the weather as things you should read, and prepare for. “If the NHS is saying: ‘We have run out of hospital beds in Yorkshire’, that stuff is depressing but it’s important for you to know.” Ho regularly updates the bot’s programming, paying attention to current events and tailoring her message during “doomscrolling peaks” such as the US presidential election, the Atlanta spa shootings and the murder of George Floyd. Her aim is to provide “some small measure of action that will help people to feel less helpless”.

Graphic designer and photographer Emily Coxhead describes her colourful quarterly, the Happy Newspaper, as “a reminder that there’s always good stuff happening, even if we don’t always hear about it”. Coxhead started the newspaper in 2015, after finishing university and finding herself struggling with her mental health, feeling “bombarded by bad news”. The paper now has a team of paid contributors, 21,000 subscribers in 33 countries and more than 400,000 followers on social media.

The positive news movement’s emphasis on community is appealing. Some of the good news fodder is stomach-churningly cheesy, with posts showing curlicued mottos on slogan cushions. And there are, undeniably, lots of tiny fluffy animals. But the bulk of it is resourceful, heartening and awe-inspiring in its collective endeavour. The Happy Newspaper is a combination of localised news and global development, with stories including Japan’s appointment of a minister for loneliness, and a teenager who makes bow ties for shelter dogs to help them dazzle their potential owners. The key to the paper’s success, Coxhead says, is its commitment to community, which is also baked into the business – for every two newspapers sold, she sends a free one to a school. “I don’t pretend that everything is covered in sunshine and rainbows, because it’s obviously not,” she says, “but I do think there needs to be a better balance.”

Looking back, much of my son’s first year is blurry, but specific stories pierced cleanly through the fog. The Zaatari refugee camp which, thanks to the ingenuity of University of Sheffield scientists, began growing vegetables out of disused foam mattresses (the foam acts as a “desert garden”, holding the vegetable’s roots in place as it grows in a nutrient-rich water solution). The 89-year-old Chicagoan who sewed 600 face masks while grooving to the Beatles. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Wine volunteer group (which spans tens of thousands across the US), whose “wine fairies” leave booze on the doorsteps of those most needing a lift. Perusing this news daily over several months, I began to feel less desperate; less diluted. Replenished by these good news outlets, like roots growing almost magically in a mattress, I began to feel level.

Of course, joyscrolling isn’t for everyone. “This good news crap is just another example of complacency propaganda,” Touissant, an ex-chef from Louisiana writes to me via email. We begin corresponding after he replies to one of my tweets about doomscrolling, saying he hates the term. “The focus isn’t on us fixing the planet, or the broken healthcare system, but diversionary stories about how a bunch of teachers all donated their sick days to another teacher with cancer – while never mentioning the problem of the broken healthcare system.”

It’s true that you can use good news-only outlets to hide from the “real” world – as I once did. Pull the heavy-tog duvet of positivity over your head and mute the world around you. To do this for any length of time is obviously not sensible. There’s an argument that platforming positive-only news is generating another kind of fake news; bad news doesn’t go away with a blanket of optimism. Disengagement, even temporary, is also a privilege. Not everyone has people who can parse the news for them, who can determine what to pass on and what to hold back. “You have a huge swathe of the population who are uninformed and unaware, and we have seen globally how problematic that can be,” Lakshmin notes. Agarwal agrees: “Some of us can’t dissociate from the bad news so easily. When there is a conversation about racism, people of colour cannot dissociate from that.” In this vein, my friend S says not reading the news would leave her more psychologically vulnerable – forewarned, she says, is forearmed.

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Agarwal advises taking a more measured approach: “Be mindful and reflective about the reasons why you are disengaging, and be mindful and reflective about when you are coming back.” That includes filtering who you follow on social media “and thinking carefully about the validity of your sources,” she says. Read a whole piece from start to finish, then go offline (crucial, this bit) and discuss it, more fully, with your friends. In short: be intentional. Ho manages her own doomscrolling by “getting in and getting out. I’m trying to disentangle from opinions and arguments.”Lakshmin says: “Basically, don’t start scrolling through your uncle’s best friend’s nephew’s problematic Facebook posts before you go to sleep.”

I no longer read only good news. Thanks to a combination of medication and talking therapy, my depression lasted a matter of months. I started reading newspapers again, but I no longer get them delivered: I wanted to feel as if I was seeking out the news, rather than it feeling “forced” through my door. I don’t keep any news apps on my phone and I rarely, if ever, watch the news on television. If it is on in a room – as it always is in my mother’s kitchen – I don’t stop to observe the car crash. I simply pass through. Looking back, I think it was less that I could not tolerate bad news, and more that I was experiencing a total sensory overload. Positive news outlets are no longer part of my daily routine, but I still enjoy them, regularly finding myself awestruck. Like the post about the 2,800-year-old skeletons found snogging on an archaeological site in Iran, in 1972. Snogging!

Resch finds the criticism of positive news outlets tiresome. “My head is not buried in the sand,” he insists. “If it was, I’d miss all of the good stuff.” Good news is lucrative – he has now hired three people to help him sift through the best bits of the internet. It’s not that it can be hard to find; rather, that there is just too much of it. “I’ve never had a day when I haven’t found anything good,” he says, before pausing for half a beat. “Not yet.”