We’re doomed. Or at least this is the sentiment surrounding climate change and global warming that infiltrates news and social media outlets — so much so that “doomism” is now a coined term. It describes the belief that we are past the point of no return with respect to addressing the environmental crisis earth finds itself in.
Education, awareness, and activism are crucial to fight climate change. Yet the circulation of fear-mongering and categorically incorrect information that gives rise to the mindset of ‘giving up’ is wholly unproductive.
Doomism has implications for environmental health, but also mental health as this mentality is seen to unsurprising increase levels of eco-anxiety, particularly in children. Eco-anxiety is defined by “chronic fear of environmental doom.” In fact, a recent study found that 45% of young people from countries around the world reported that they consider their climate-related anxiety to interfere with their daily functioning.
There are several factors that place young people at higher risk of experiencing the negative effects of doomism and eco-anxiety more severely. This exacerbated susceptibility is likely a result of their lower capacity for understanding and discerning credible sources, increasing exposure to negative news through social media, and gaps in mental health access. These experiences specific to young people will have grave consequences for the already troublesome mental health landscape among youth in the United States.
Anxiety is characterized by feelings of uncertainty and imminence. While of course, climate change is a major challenge facing our society today, much of the eco-anxiety-producing uncertainty and imminence can be prevented through education and media literacy training interventions. Therefore, in order to protect the mental health of millions of young people, there is an urgent need for these skills and knowledge to be integrated into elementary and middle school curricula in the United States.
Unlike adults, who are typically able to distinguish credible articles from those that are not, research shows, unsurprisingly, that children have less of a capacity to do so. One way to counteract doomism’s negative effects is to equip young people with the tools they need to identify credible sources and information on the internet.
Further, incorporating education surrounding not only news and media literacy, but also general knowledge about the realities of climate change into curricula for young people will also aid in their ability to discern credible sources and consequently decrease eco-anxiety levels.
Social media has to be held responsible for exposing children to such sources in the first place. Young people do not always seek news — with prolific platforms such as Instagram and Tik Tok, the news finds them. Social media sites like these have high concentrations of doomism content for the same reasons news articles are written in this style: it’s shocking, it gets views, and it makes money. So now more than ever, youth must be prepared with the resources necessary to navigate such digital terrains that can negatively impact their mental health.
Youth in the United States are facing a mental health care access epidemic. Currently, only about 20% of youth who need mental healthcare are able to access it. While it is irrefutably important that we improve access to care, any mechanisms for preventing and reducing the severity of mental health issues can and should be prioritized as well. Accordingly, implementing education and media literacy training into public school curricula as a primary prevention approach would contribute to narrowing access gaps for mental healthcare among youth.
However, it must also be noted that the information on the internet surrounding climate change and activism is not all rooted in doomism. There are activists like Wawa Gatheru, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, who has dedicated her Tik Tok platform to fighting doomism and inspiring people to action, not fear, when addressing climate change. She and others fighting doomism offer factual information on social media platforms frequented by youth as well as actionable ways to become more environmentally friendly and get involved with community efforts to stop climate change.
So while these quasi-interventions are beneficial and important to both environmental and mental health, there is still work to be done to empower and equip young people to first identify and engage with this productive information and disregard the doomist content.
This is a challenge as the shocking nature of negative information can often overpower the work that is done to reverse it. Thus given the evidence of the relationships between doomism and mental health, a more unified approach to education is warranted to prevent eco-anxiety and inspire activism among the rising generation.
The truth is, we’re not doomed.
Elizabeth Jadovich is a student at the Yale School of Public Health.