Watching the War Won’t Stop It
How to turn doom-scrolling into ‘do-scrolling’
I can’t stop watching. The shattered skylines, and lives, of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and other Ukrainian cities fill my TV screen, my laptop, my smartphone. Even when I press mute, I can still hear the fear in the voice of a terrified child or the quiet determination of a resistance fighter.
If an hour goes by and I haven’t checked the news, I get antsy and click. (I’ve checked the news seven times in the course of writing this article.) I watch the news from Ukraine as if my watching is somehow helping the people of Ukraine. It is not. It is not helping me either. It is, I now realize, an indulgence, doom scrolling on an industrial scale.
I’ve written about the media’s bad-news bias. It is real, but so is this war. Sometimes the news is so bad that turning away feels like a cop-out, an abdication. This is one of those times.
Watching the grim news out of Ukraine, it’s easy to slip into “learned helplessness.” That is a behavior exhibited when a subject, animal or person, is repeatedly exposed to negative stimuli beyond their control. The phenomenon was first identified in the 1960s by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman. In a series of experiments, Seligman and a colleague placed dogs in three different groups then exposed them to mild electric shocks. The first two groups could escape the shocks. The third group of dogs could not. So they stopped trying.
Even when, in subsequent experiments, these dogs could avoid the shocks, they still did nothing. They had learned to be helpless. The experiment was replicated with humans (using loud noises instead of shocks) with similar results. Seligman posited that learned helplessness can lead to low self-esteem, drug abuse, depression and physical illness.
But the story doesn’t end there. Seligman noticed that not all the human participants responded the same way. Yes, many blamed themselves for “failing,” but others blamed the way the experiment was framed. They knew it set them up for failure. In other words, not everyone is equally susceptible to learned helplessness.
It is not the horrors of war that motivate people to take action but…