The first thing I did when I read my phone's news alert that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died was drop the spoon I was eating with; I gasped out loud and ran into the other room to tell my partner. Next, I shared the news with my family via our group chat and with my best friend through a text that simply said: "fuck." And then, I opened Twitter and started to scroll. My feed reflected the same grief, terror, and despair I was experiencing and that my partner, family, and friends also expressed, only multiplied by hundreds. In that moment, I felt something that is rarely mentioned now in association with social media: comfort.
There have been a lot of articles published recently about incessantly using social media during dark times — aka doomscrolling — and the detrimental effects that this kind of spiralling can have on our mental health. As someone who has spent too many nights over the last seven months wide awake into the wee hours hypnotised by the panic-inducing glow emanating from my phone screen, I readily admit that the doomscroll is real. However, rather than being purely dangerous, I've also experienced its effects as a different phenomenon.
Whenever something bad, scary, or disturbing happens in the news — which seems to be an almost daily occurrence — the first thing I do is hop on Twitter to see what the people I follow have to say about it. Because I have curated what might be considered a bubble of progressive writers, comedians, celebrities, politicians, and personalities, I usually see a lot of outrage and I find it extremely reassuring. We're living in such chaotic times that it feels like a relief to get confirmation that none of this is normal. I liken it to the experience of being on a crowded subway when someone does something totally out of the ordinary, like loudly talking on speakerphone about a mole they are about to get removed or singing Toto's "Africa" completely off-key — both real things I've observed. It's odd and uncomfortable at first until you start looking around to see if anyone else on the train is as uneasy as you are. Inevitably, you make eye contact with another person, share exacerbated expressions, and get back to your podcast, now with the volume turned up loud enough to drown out the distraction and wait for your stop. It soothes you to know that social norms have not changed without your noticing. Others are on the same page about this strange occurrence; you are not alone.
Of course, doomscrolling has its downsides too, as do curated social media echo chambers. Normalising chaos doesn't alleviate the difficulties attached to living through traumatic times. But, I experience an undeniable lift when I look at Twitter and see I'm not alone in the dread that washes over me after learning the US President is withholding a crucial stimulus bill in the name of politics, or that wildfires are ravaging the West Coast of America with no acknowledgment from those in power that this is an effect of global warming, or of yet another police shooting with no accountability.
According to Dr Mesfin Bekalu, a research scientist at the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the link between social media use and our health and wellbeing is a complex one. However, he states that the benefit I seem to be experiencing could reflect something called "the social sharing of emotions," which "is a well-known phenomenon in real-life context, but little is known about it in the context of social media," Dr Bekalu tells Refinery29. "In real life, when people experience negative emotions, they tend to share it with others in hopes of obtaining help and support, comfort and consolation, or legitimisation and validation — and these are believed to be helpful for emotion regulation to varying degrees."
Think about all those times you've vented to your friends about your annoying boss. It feels so good when they respond with a "What the fuck? That totally sucks," doesn't it? This could be what I (and, undoubtedly, many others) are doing on Twitter in 2020. "In your case, when you hop on social media with a particular negative emotion, you might be anticipating, consciously or unconsciously, legitimisation or validation, and because you are interacting with (or following and being followed by) people whose values and ideologies you agree with, you are likely to obtain the legitimisation or validation you sought, implicitly, in a form of posts or tweets of similar emotions — and that may help you to regulate your emotions somehow," Dr Bekalu explains.
Dr Bekalu is quick to point out that this so-called benefit I'm experiencing is only happening because of my carefully curated bubble. "I don’t think we can expect this kind of benefit from a social media network with diverse (in terms of ideology, and other factors) members as emotions toward a given topic could vary considerably in such a network," he says. This is why I'm constantly refreshing Twitter and almost never logging on to Facebook, which for better or for worse, is filled with hometown acquaintances and older relatives who don't all share my belief that what's happening in 2020 is absolutely outrageous.
Right now, as so many of us are barely hanging on to any feeling of stability, it's okay to use Twitter as a way to remind ourselves that our current reality should not be considered normal. Regulating our emotions via the infinite scroll is acceptable, but there is one way that this act must differ from the experience of locking eyes with a stranger over weird subway interactions: We can't go back to blasting our podcasts, waiting for the shitty situation to be over. We cannot connect over the outrage and be lulled into a false sense that everyone feels this way. Instead, we have to use the connection and support that social media offers to do something constructive and actively change the shitty situation.
Endless social media scrolling is often seen as being universally bad, in part thanks to the important issues raised in Netflix's popular documentary The Social Dilemma and The New York Times' podcast Rabbit Hole, and in part because we often do it when we're already feeling pretty down. But, just as it is true that doomscrolling has the potential to overwhelm us, it's also true that using social media to construct a community of positive voices can be restorative, as long as you're aware it isn't representative of the world at-large. And, especially during a time when our lives feel at-times irreparably fragmented, our collective search for connection via our social media feeds isn't just a product of desperation, it's an act of healing.