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Doomscrolling is slowly eroding your mental health

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Joel Sorrell | Getty Images

It’s 11:37pm and the pattern shows no signs of shifting. At 1:12am, it’s more of the same. Thumb down, thumb up. Twitter, Instagram, and—if you’re feeling particularly wrought/masochistic—Facebook. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic left a great many people locked down in their homes in early March, the evening ritual has been codifying: Each night ends the way the day began, with an endless scroll through social media in a desperate search for clarity.

To those who have become purveyors of the perverse exercise, like The New York Times’ Kevin Roose, this habit has become known as doomsurfing, or “falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with coronavirus content, agitating myself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep.” For those who prefer their despair be portable, the term is doomscrolling, and as protests over racial injustice and police brutality following the death of George Floyd have joined the COVID-19 crisis in the news cycle, it’s only gotten more intense. The constant stream of news and social media never ends.

Of course, a late-night scroll is nothing new—it’s the kind of thing therapists often hear about when couples say one or the other isn’t providing enough attention. But it used to be that Sunday nights in bed were spent digging through Twitter for Game of Thrones hot takes, or armchair quarterbacking the day’s game. Now, the only thing to binge-watch is the world’s collapse into crisis. Coronavirus deaths (473,000 worldwide and counting), unemployment rates (around 13 percent in the US), protesters in the street on any given day marching for racial justice (countless thousands)—the faucet of data runs nonstop. There are unlimited seasons, and the promise of some answer, or perhaps even some good news, always feels one click away.

But it’s not. Right now, people are living at a time with no easy solutions, a moment with a lot of conflicting “facts” in a rapidly changing landscape. According to Nicole Ellison, who studies communication and social media at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, that means there’s a “lot of demand on cognitive processing to make sense of this. There’s no overarching narrative that helps us.” That, she adds, only compounds the stress and anxiety they’re already feeling.

For years, people have questioned the net benefits of platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and while some studies have found social media, when used responsibly, can have positive effects on mental health, it can also lead to anxiety and depression. Or, at the bare minimum, FOMO. And that’s just the result of looking at too many brunch photos or links to celebrity gossip. Add in a global pandemic and civil unrest—and the possibility that social media networks are incentivized to push trending topics into your feeds—and the problem intensifies. “In a situation like that, we engage in these more narrow, immediate survival-oriented behaviors. We’re in fight-or-flight mode,” Ellison says. “Combine that with the fact that, socially, many of us are not going into work and standing around the coffee maker engaging in collective sense-making, and the result is we don’t have a lot of those social resources available to us in the same way.”

The doom and gloom isn’t all the media’s fault, though. 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, notes that while a lot of the news is bad, “as humans we have a ‘natural’ tendency to pay more attention to negative news.” This, along with social media algorithms, makes doomscrolling—and its impacts—almost inevitable. “Since the 1970s, we know of the ‘mean world syndrome’—the belief that the world is a more dangerous place to live in than it actually is—as a result of long-term exposure to violence-related content on television,” Bekalu says. “So, doomscrolling can lead to the same long-term effects on mental health unless we mount interventions that address users’ behaviors and guide the design of social media platforms in ways that improve mental health and well-being.”

The effects of doomscrolling also vary depending on who’s doing it. Allissa Richardson, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, notes that when she was researching her new book Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, she spoke to many activists who didn’t participate in doomscrolling simply because, they said, “I can’t see myself being killed over and over again in this tiny square on my phone.” Being able to participate in, and then opt out of, excessive social media use is, she notes, a privilege, which is why, when it comes to social media, many Black users turn to Verzuz battles on Instagram Live and other forms of Black joy as an act of resistance. “Doomscrolling for  Black people works in the inverse, we’re actually trying to look for something separate and apart from bad things,” Richardson says. “For many nonblack Americans, this has been an incredibly enriching time, and doomscrolling for them is a deep dive into the things maybe they weren’t educated well about in the first place or maybe did have an inkling about but were ignoring.”

To that end, there have been some upsides to the constant clicking. Social media is helping people stay connected during lockdown, and as the conversation shifted away from COVID-19 and toward racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s become a tool for active engagement—spreading news about protests, bail funds, community resources—rather than just a forum for the passive consumption of pandemic updates. Yet the late-night digging, the endless reading of bad news, is draining. (It can also, Richardson notes, endanger protesters whose identities get spread around in other people’s feeds.) It’s a compulsion that’s only gotten worse in recent months, and one that points to humanity’s quest to find coping mechanisms when many of them have been stripped away.

So, the doomscrolling continues. The actual origins of the term are a bit murky, though many point to this tweet from October 2018 as a possible forebear. More recently, doomscrolling was designated one of Merriam-Webster’s Words We’re Watching, and Dictionary.com named it one of its “New Words We Created Because of Coronavirus.”

There’s something else in the etymology, though. Particularly in the word doom. Originally, the word had connotations that related it to judgement day and the end of the world, but now it’s just as likely to be associated with destruction or ruin. The act of doomscrolling, then, is to roll toward annihilation. Or, to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion (writing during America’s last traumatic, generation-defining year, 1968), it is an act of slouching toward quietus. Taken biblically, it has a Revelation tone. Each swipe through the timeline marks the end of a day of reckoning—for the state of the world at large and for the person attached to each appendage doing the scrolling. Simultaneously, each person watches the demise of so much, while also slowly destroying themselves. (This rush to judgement could also explain why so many public figures are now facing cancellation.) Didion lifted “slouching towards Bethlehem” from W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” itself a reflection on the destruction caused by World War I written amidst the 1918 flu pandemic. It’s only natural that the world’s scrolling reflects those writers’ apocryphal Apocalypse visions.

At the same time, it doesn’t have to. Doomscrolling will never actually stop the doom itself. Feeling informed can be a salve, but being overwhelmed by tragedy serves no purpose. The current year is nothing if not a marathon; trying to sprint to the end of one’s feed will only cause burnout and a decline in mental health among the people whose level-headedness is needed most. That means you, dear reader. Amidst all of the pain, isolation, and destruction of the past six months, it’s not worth it to add on to the strain with two hours of excess Twitter every night. Perhaps now just needs to be the End Times for your timeline.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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COVID was the leading cause of death in Americans aged 45-54 in 2021

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Enlarge / A woman watches white flags on the National Mall on September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Over 660,000 white flags were installed here to honor Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 epidemic.

COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in Americans between March 2020 and October 2021, accounting for one in every eight deaths.

In that time frame, COVID-19 ranked in the top five causes of death for every age group of people older than 15 years. Between January and October 2021, the pandemic disease was the leading cause of death among people 45 to 54 years old.

That’s all according to a study of national death certificate data, published Tuesday in JAMA Internal Medicine by researchers at the National Institutes of Health.

The study found COVID-19 caused roughly 700,000 deaths between March 2020 and October 2021. The pandemic disease trailed only heart disease and cancer, which caused roughly 2.15 million collectively in that time frame. The fourth and fifth deadliest afflictions in the US were accidental deaths—including car crashes, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths—and stroke, which collectively caused around 624,000 deaths during that period.

The authors, led by Meredith Shiels, an expert in cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute, broke up the time frame into two sections: the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to December 2020, and January 2021 to October 2021, the last month for which there was complete data. This revealed age-specific trends, likely driven partly by uptake of vaccines and other mitigation efforts.

In the 2020 period, COVID-19 was the second leading cause of death in people aged 85 and over, but, amid high vaccine uptake in this age group, it fell to the third leading cause of death from January to October 2021.

Younger adults saw the opposite trend. For those aged 45 to 54, COVID-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the 2020 period but jumped to the leading cause of death in 2021. Likewise, in those aged 35 to 44, COVID-19 jumped from the fifth leading cause of death in 2020 to the second leading cause in 2021. And for those aged 15 to 24 and 25 to 34, COVID-19 wasn’t in the top five in 2020, but ranked as the fourth leading cause of death in both age groups in 2021.

For those aged 55 to 84, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in both time periods.

The study is limited by the potential for misclassifying deaths on death certificates. But the authors were careful to select a time cutoff that would limit provisional or incomplete data from skewing the findings. That meant, however, that the study did not include deaths from part of the delta wave or the towering omicron wave in January 2022. Since October 2021, around 300,000 additional people in the US have died from COVID-19.

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Russian astronauts use space station to promote anti-Ukraine propaganda

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Enlarge / Cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev, and Sergey Korsakov pose with a flag of the Luhansk People’s Republic on the International Space Station.

The Russian state space corporation responsible for spaceflight activities, Roscosmos, on Monday posted images to its official Telegram channel showing three cosmonauts with the tri-color flags of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic.

The photos were taken recently on board the International Space Station and show smiling cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev, and Sergey Korsakov posing with the flags.

“This is a long-awaited day that residents of the occupied areas of the Luhansk region have been waiting for eight years,” the Roscosmos message stated. “We are confident that July 3, 2022, will forever go down in the history of the republic.”

The images and social media posting represent the most blatant use of the International Space Station—which is operated by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency—for Russian propaganda purposes since the invasion of Ukraine.

Luhansk and Donetsk are two breakaway “quasi-states” in the eastern region of Ukraine known as the Donbas. Ukraine and Russia have battled over the two regions since 2014, as Russia has agitated separatists in the Ukrainian territory. The United Nations does not recognize the two “republics,” and Ukraine has designated them as “temporarily occupied territories.” Fighting has heated up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This past weekend, Russian forces claimed to have established control over the entire Luhansk region.

A professional relationship

NASA and Roscosmos, as well as other space agencies, have continued cooperating on the International Space Station since the invasion began. Some US officials have suggested that NASA should consider breaking ties with Russia in space due to the atrocities in Ukraine. However, the space agency’s administrator has defended the partnership on the basis that the station flies above geopolitical tensions on Earth. NASA also wants to keep flying the station, as breaking the US segment from the Russian segment would be difficult and potentially fatal to the operation of the orbital facility.

In an interview published Monday in the German publication Der Spiegel, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson reiterated this stance.

“In the midst of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States were mortal enemies and their nuclear weapons could be used at any time, a US and a Soviet spacecraft met in space in 1975,” Nelson said. “Peaceful cooperation continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our space shuttle docked with the Russian space station Mir. And then we decided to build the International Space Station together. Both countries are needed for operations, the Russians for propulsion, the Americans for power. We will continue to have a very professional relationship between cosmonauts and astronauts to keep this station alive.”

Nevertheless the provocative actions this weekend by Roscosmos, with its cosmonauts celebrating the so-called liberation of Ukrainian territory, brings the bloody conflict on Earth into space. To some observers, such as former NASA astronaut Terry Virts, Russia’s use of the space station for propaganda purposes is unacceptable.

“I am incredibly disappointed to see cosmonauts and Roscosmos using the International Space Station as a platform to promote their illegal and immoral war, where civilians are being killed every day,” said Virts, who flew side by side with Russians and commanded the space station in 2015. “The space station is supposed to be a symbol of peace and cooperation.”

Virts said NASA has largely been trying to look the other way when it comes to Russian actions, most notably when it comes to Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, who has made numerous jingoistic statements about the war. But in this case, he said, the agency really cannot afford to.

Seat swap

NASA’s cooperation with Russia may come into greater public focus in a couple of months. At present, a NASA astronaut named Frank Rubio is scheduled to fly on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the station in September. Around the same time, a Russian cosmonaut named Anna Kikina is due to fly on a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle to the station as part of the seat swap. The arrangement has not been formally agreed to by the US and Russian government.

In his German interview, Nelson defended the swap, saying, “It makes a lot of sense for us. You need both Russians and Americans to operate the space station. What happens if something is wrong with one of our spacecraft? We need the other vehicle as a back-up. And that’s why we will continue to have crew exchanges.”

Such an argument may soon ring hollow, however. Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft may make its first crewed test flight before the end of this year, and if it is successful NASA will have two US spacecraft capable of reaching the station.

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How the Yurok Tribe is bringing back the California Condor

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Enlarge / The California condor is a New World vulture, the largest North American land bird. This condor became extinct in the wild in 1987, but the species has been reintroduced in California and Arizona.

The first California condor to reach Yurok ancestral land in over a century arrived by plane and car in late March of 2022. The small plane that carried Condor 746 had a rough landing, and the bird was irritable. He rattled around in a large dog crate during the three-hour drive to the tribe’s newly built condor facility, in a remote location in Redwood National Park.

Once there, he hopped into the flight pen, a tall enclosure of wire mesh, furnished with log perches and a drinking pool. At 8 years old, Condor 746 is an adult, his naked head bright pink instead of the black found in younger birds. He’s on loan from the captive breeding program at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. His job is to act as the mentor for four juvenile birds who will become the founders of a reborn condor society in Yurok country.

“We have mentors because condors are so social,” says Joe Burnett, California Condor Recovery Program Manager at the Ventana Wildlife Society. Young birds in a pen with no adult will become unruly. “You get the Lord of the Flies syndrome,” says Burnett. He and his colleagues quickly learned that release programs need an adult to serve as a role model and enforce the social hierarchy that is crucial to the flock’s survival.

A few days after 746 arrived, Condor A0, age 2, entered the flight pen. The first thing she focused on was 746, lounging on a perch. Understanding that she was in a safe place, A0 checked out the food—the carcass of a stillborn calf—then flapped onto a perch and fluffed up her feathers, a sign of avian contentment. Three young male condors, tagged A1, A2, and A3, followed. The youngsters had been living together for months at other condor facilities in Boise, Idaho, and San Simeon, California, and they already felt at home with each other.

Condor, known as prey-go-neesh in the native language, is sacred to the Yurok people. The Yurok reservation lies along the Klamath River in northwest California, but much of the tribe’s ancestral land is now in the hands of government agencies or private landowners. The tribe has been working to bring back the California condor since 2003, when a group of elders identified the bird as a keystone species for both culture and ecology, and therefore the most important land-based creature in need of restoration.

Nineteen years after the Yurok made that bold decision, the condors arrived. Elders who had worked toward that pivotal moment watched as Tiana Williams-Claussen, director of the Yurok Wildlife Department, and her colleagues released each newcomer into the pen.

Williams-Claussen’s job is to understand the details of condor biology and to interpret Yurok culture for the wider world. A tribal member, she grew up on the coast near the mouth of the Klamath, and went off to Harvard University. She didn’t set out to be a condor biologist, but when she returned in 2007 with a degree in biochemical sciences, condor restoration was the work her people needed her to do. Williams-Claussen has since spent 14 years living and breathing condors, learning how to handle them, building partnerships with government agencies, and listening to what Yurok elders have to say about the great bird.

The California condor is a critically endangered species: In the 1980s, the total population dwindled to fewer than 30 individuals. Biologists concluded the species’ only chance of survival lay in capturing every living condor in order to breed the birds in captivity, safe from poisons and power lines.

Reintroducing condors to the wild proved difficult, however, and the process became a dramatic lesson for biologists on the importance of parenting and the slow pace of growing up among these long-lived, highly social birds. Scientists learned that time spent with adults was critical to the behavioral development of young condors. They also found that in a species where adults follow and protect their offspring for a year or more after the birds fledge, youngsters pioneering landscapes empty of condors require lots of human babysitting.

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