Our world provides more than enough bad news. The reality is, what comes across our screens only scratches the surface of evil in our neighborhoods, nations, and hearts. Christians aren’t surprised by this. We understand the sweeping effects of our rebellion against God (Gen. 3). We know we inhabit a fallen world. We’re saddened, but not surprised, when our news feeds confirm our doctrine of sin.
But it seems we’re drawn to observing this fallenness. We want to watch it. And so we scroll.
Welcome to doomscrolling.
An article at Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching” describes doomscrolling as “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.”
When did we start doomscrolling? In some ways the phenomenon isn’t new. Digital technologies have just given us faster access to greater quantities of bad news.
But we don’t need algorithms to prove we delight in darkness. We might trace the origins of doomscrolling to the moment Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). The idolatry of her heart redirected the focus of her eyes. And after feasting, with her husband, on what she saw, “the eyes of both were opened” (Gen. 3:7)—but they no longer saw well. Their sight was now subjected to sin.
Sin also commandeered the focus of the eyes when Noah’s son, Ham, saw the nakedness of his father. While his brothers, Shem and Japheth, were careful not to stare at their father’s nakedness, Ham’s sinful gaze resulted in his father’s curse (Gen. 9:25). Not long after, Lot’s wife set her eyes on Sodom—despite the clear command not to look back as they fled the city that would receive God’s wrath (Gen. 19:17, 26).
Their eyes were drawn to evil, as are ours. With flicking thumbs and bloodstained eyes, we stand with Eve, Ham, and Lot’s wife in being drawn to gawk at the suffering and shame of others.
Profiting from Pain
The pandemic meant that most of us spent even more time looking at digital screens last year. And much of what we saw was unpleasant.
We were glued to our screens as we read the heartbreaking news of the deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others. We watched update after update of the spreading COVID-19 virus. We tuned in to the political drama of the impeachment and acquittal of President Trump. We watched in horror at the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. We watched cringeworthy debates and other election-year spectacles.
As we turned the calendar to a new year—yes, that was all in 2020—we watched in surreal horror as a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. And while we did enjoy a moment of humorous Bernie Sanders memes, our digital engagement has left most of us emotionally exhausted.
While it may have been fruitful to watch some of these things, we also need to remember that every headline is a sales pitch, crafted to grab our attention, accrue clicks, and make money. Media companies profit from our addiction to doomscrolling. They’re motivated to keep us doing it—drawing us constantly from one horrific headline to the next, from one “can’t turn away” breaking news disaster to another.
Doomscrolling and the Disciple’s Soul
Christians should reflect on how their digital habits are helping or hindering their discipleship. What is doomscrolling doing to your soul?
Media companies profit from our addiction to doomscrolling.
For one, it fuels our anger. Doomscrolling is like stacking logs on a campfire to heighten the flames. With each new article, we discover new links and new outrages that increase the heat. Doomscrolling also shapes our hearts to delight in calamity. While Scripture encourages us with the vision of the demise of evil (Rev. 18), it also warns us to avoid looking on at the demise of our neighbor (Luke 10:25–37). Doomscrolling turns our neighbor’s pain into our entertainment.
As our eyes take in images and headlines of hatred and evil, our minds and hearts interpret and ingest them. If we’re not careful, our soul begins to be shaped by the darkness we consume.
C. S. Lewis warns us in Mere Christianity:
Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.
In Isaiah 33, God reveals the connection of our repentance and our gaze:
He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly,
who despises the gain of oppressions,
who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe,
who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed
and shuts his eyes from looking on evil,
he will dwell on the heights;
his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks;
his bread will be given him; his water will be sure. (Isa. 33:15–16)
Jesus urged his followers, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29). Where are your eyes looking? We must take our digital habits seriously. If you gravitate toward doomscrolling, repent of this habit and turn your gaze to something—or Someone—better.
Doomscrolling turns our neighbor’s pain into our entertainment.
Tony Reinke paraphrases the psalmist’s plea in Psalm 119:33–40: “God, grab my head, and turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways as I behold the inestimable worth of your glory.”
Jesus is better than doomscrolling. He intends for you to see and bask in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not in the doom and darkness of the world.