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What happens when you reach your limit online

What happens when you reach your limit online


How to survive the internet’s pits of despair

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As a writer, it’s always been my job to be extremely online. Now that everything from my office to my friendships is operating remotely, the internet is an even bigger part of my life. And I’ve never been more tired of it.

It seems like so much of my social media feeds are filled with terrible news. Case counts rise. Businesses collapse. The White House impedes efforts at progress. Every time I open Twitter, there’s a new thing to be devastated and enraged about. It seems like it never stops — and yet, I keep reading.   

This perverse habit, which some have termed “doomsurfing” or “doomscrolling” is now part of our collective zeitgeist. The New York Times called it a “masochistic exercise.” NPR called it “a pool of despair.” Experts agree that it’s an unhealthy behavior — and they also acknowledge that humans have a tendency to do it anyway.

“It probably has never been more important to regulate your exposure to stressful news.”

It took a directive from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to make me realize why I’ve been doomscrolling for the past few months: I feel a duty to know. I wanted people to be upset by the Trump administration’s ruling, which would’ve subjected thousands of international students, including close friends of mine, to deportation. I wanted everyone to be outraged for the people I loved. I was (however irrationally) angry at people who didn’t know about the ruling or didn’t care. I feel a similar anger at myself if I miss terrible news that crushes other people’s lives. 

I asked Ann Masten, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota who studies resilience, about the best ways to exist, mentally and morally, during this pandemic. She said that it’s common to feel a combination of helpless and overwhelmed in times of disaster. “It is very easy to be overexposed to the trauma of this pandemic with a 24/7 news cycle. It probably has never been more important to regulate your exposure to stressful news,” Masten says.

That doesn’t mean forget the internet, and it doesn’t mean avoiding all important news. It does mean keeping an eye on how you’re feeling and setting aside time for breaks. I’ve used SelfControl to block myself from social media at certain hours. The New York Times recommended setting a 10-minute timer to remind you to stop scrolling.

“It is not easy to balance responsibilities and advocacy with self-protection in the present situation, particularly with the urgency of the need to respond to injustice,” Masten tells me. “As the pandemic wears on, it becomes more important to watch out for signs of depletion.” 

Being in a constant state of despair makes it harder to care deeply enough and be in a good enough mental state to help others, says Barbara Walker, a health performance psychologist at UC Health. “I equate it to the oxygen-mask-first idea,” Walker said. “You have to put your own oxygen mask on first, in a plane, before you can help other people with theirs.”

“If I’m so worried about what’s going on and not taking care of myself and eating well, then ideological and psychological resilience is going to break down,” she says. “And then how good are you at helping other people?”

The reality, though, is that we can only do so much. ICE rescinded its order, but one of my friends left the country anyway. I don’t know when (or if) I’ll see him again. And he’s not the only one. Every week or so, it seems like another friend of mine moves away because they couldn’t make rent, because their job went permanently remote, because their families needed help, or because they just needed to get away. When we’ve reached the limit of the donating and volunteering and supporting and self-care we can do, a pandemic (for now) still remains. Paradoxically, part of being okay right now is accepting the fact that things are not okay.

“This is life right now.”

“This is life right now,” Walker says. “It’s not the same life as it was, but it is life. And it is your life.”

In other words, Walker says, delineate what you can control from what you can’t — specifically, actively, intentionally. The best way to keep your sense of control is to do what you can — as much as you can — while reminding yourself that it’s all you can do. 

I cannot make vaccines. I cannot issue executive orders or conjure contact tracers from the ground. But I can check in on my friends wherever they may be. I can love them across six feet, across an ocean, or across a pandemic. 

I’ve been watching Dark on Netflix, which posits a philosophy of time as spatial rather than chronological — every moment of the future is happening now, elsewhere. For some reason, it’s been helpful for me to think that way, to imagine that somewhere, right now, we’re together again. Somewhere, we’re hugging and laughing again, masks off. Somewhere, we’re sharing popcorn at a baseball game and screaming ourselves hoarse when our team scores. Somewhere, we’re sitting in a dim bar, and I’m shouting to them over the crowds and the music: “I missed you. You haven’t changed at all.”

That vision of a brighter future is possible. “It is important to observe the signs of resilience emerging all around us,” says Masten. “Ordinary people connecting in families, communities, hospitals, labs, and demonstrations to respond to this complicated and extended crisis, motivated in ways we could not imagine just a few months ago.”

It’s a reminder that helps me put the online doom in perspective. “What I sell, as a psychologist, is hope,” Walker says. “Hope is thinking about a better future and feeling optimistic about the future even though currently things are uncomfortable. It’s great if more people feel hopeful.” 

Here, now, today, I am reminding myself that I cannot upend a system on my own. I cannot save the world, but I can promise to do what I can — to care and love and fiercely hope — until other people do.