Media headlines throughout 2017 delivered one dismal news story after the next. In this information age, troubling events bombard us from almost anywhere, and as important as it is for us to be informed citizens, it shouldn’t be at the expense of our emotional well-being. In August 2017, two-thirds of Americans reported getting at least some of their news from social media. Even if we aren’t directly seeking out news updates, they pop up in our news feeds, phone notifications, newspaper stands on the sidewalk and our conversations.
In a turbulent political climate, it makes sense that we want to be informed. In his article “How to Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind,” author and behavior designer Nir Eyal reflects on his own post-election news consumption. “I told myself that I was staying informed, that this was part of my civic duty—and that not staying up-to-date 24/7 would leave me politically ignorant and impotent,” he said.
The fear of being underinformed or ignorant is valid and understandable in today’s world. We’re apprehensive about having politicians and leaders pull the wool over our eyes. The pursuit of staying informed can become a way to push back against them. But when does viewing the news cease to serve and begin to consume us?
An American Psychological Association study last year found “more than half of Americans say the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress.” Surrounded by easily accessible news sources, we are therefore constantly reminded of our stressors.
Steven Stosny, Ph.D., coined this phenomenon “headline stress disorder,” observing, “For many people, continual alerts from news sources, blogs, social media and alternative facts feel like missile explosions in a siege without end.”
In this onslaught of information, attempting to stay informed ceases to be helpful. For me, upsetting news stories can become overwhelming and incapacitating. Lying in my own pit of despair over the status of our world doesn’t promote change or make me a better citizen. Instead, it tempts me to renounce the world and become a hermit.
The detrimental effect news can have on emotional well-being isn’t an anomaly, either. Psychologists are studying more and more the links between news consumption and mental health.
Along with amplifying pre-existing depression and anxiety, exposure to negative news can trigger “compassion fatigue, becoming less sympathetic to the plight of others over time due to an overabundance of stories of violence and suffering in the media.”
Wanting to stay informed is one thing, but when it comes to the news, overconsumption of information isn’t helpful. Despite how unavoidable current events seem to be through technology, here are some practical things you can do to avoid this news overload:
— Set a concrete limit on the amount of time you actively consume news media. Maybe give yourself 15 minutes in the morning to get up to date, or only check news sites once per day.
— Get rid of news apps on your phone, or turn off their notifications. This way the news doesn’t have to follow you everywhere.
— Go old-school and read the newspaper. Online hyperlinks can suck you into a never-ending string of story after story. Newspapers are self-contained; you can read them, get informed and move on.
— Remove politics from your social media. Google Chrome has plugins that block political keywords from your news feed. Or finally, unfollow that friend with the political posts.
— Seek out positive news to keep things in perspective. Conventional news sites tend to focus on the negative and catastrophic, making it look like the world is falling apart. Online sources like Good News Network and TODAY’s Good News page can give you a healthy dose of optimism to counteract all the bad news.
Be mindful of your news habits and do what works for you. There is no set number of articles to read in order to be a good, informed citizen. If you feel overwhelmed, chances are you need to take a step back from the news, and these limits don’t have to be permanent. Limits can simply provide a temporary break if that’s what you need. In essence, it’s a tough world out there, so treat yourself gently.