There’s a macabre adage in journalism: If it bleeds, it leads. That means, in essence, that the more violence or conflict a story contains, the more prominent it will appear, whether in print or on television. In the extremely online era, the variety of bad news to which we are regularly exposed — violence and war, yes, but also political unrest, economic uncertainty, and dire warnings about climate change — has expanded along with our access to it.
Leaving aside the value of being up to date on what’s happening, there’s certainly a need for the public to be informed of threats to safety, but being inundated with bad news all the time isn’t safe either. Numerous studies have identified a link between emotional distress and the overconsumption of news, but you probably don’t need a study to tell you doomscrolling makes you feel bad. When your social media and news feeds — not to mention your real-life conversations — are teeming with terrible events, your mood suffers, and it can be hard to see the good in the world.
To keep informed without getting overwhelmed, set a schedule for your news consumption, and stick to it.
What is media overload?
The American Psychological Association has noted an increase in news-related stress in recent years, which is no wonder, as more than half of U.S. adults get the news through social media “often” or at least “sometimes,” per the Pew Research Centre — and outlets stay competitive with one another by foregrounding the most shocking stories about climate change, the economy, crime, and other grim stuff.
Too much of this can lead to media overload — the natural result of, essentially, hooking yourself up to a constant drip feed of bad brain chemicals. There is good news out there, but it doesn’t lead because it doesn’t bleed, and the chemicals that make you feel stressed or anxious can be as addictive as any drug. Too much time spent consuming the news can warp your sense of real-world dangers, keeping you coming back to for more as you reflexively try to stay on top of all these perceived threats.
Avoid media overload by setting boundaries
Just as you need breaks when you’re working to maximise your productivity, you need them in your news consumption habits. It’s necessary to have leisure time to balance out your stressors and, in this case, help you remember that the world isn’t all doom and gloom.
Instead of leaving your news app of choice open all the time, set aside two times per day to check what’s going on in the world, maybe in the late morning and early afternoon. Allow just 15 minutes each time. Don’t start your morning with the news so you have a chance to complete other tasks early in the day. Likewise, don’t check them again too close to bedtime to avoid getting caught in an anxiety spiral, unable to sleep.
Here’s how to keep yourself on track:
- Use a scheduling method, like a colour-coded clock, to clearly define your news-consuming times, and stick with it until it’s a habit.
- Disable push alerts from any news or social media apps on your phone — or, better yet, delete them.
- Tell your close circle what you’re doing and ask them not to send you articles, cable clips, or bad news updates in general throughout the day.
- During your scheduled checkin time, look to reliable and non-inflammatory sources for your news rather than relying on social media “what’s trending” feeds.
These simple steps can produce tangible results. A study from 2020 surveyed 5,545 Spanish adults during the pandemic lockdown, finding that while 65% reported anxiety or depressive symptoms, sticking to routines and focusing on hobbies predicted lower depressive symptoms overall, as did not reading too many news stories about the pandemic.
Even with a reduction in how much news you consume, you will still encounter news that distresses you. In these instances, aim to process it, and not catastrophize it. Using cognitive restructuring (which you can learn how to do on your own here) can help you work through the feelings stressful news brings up, and reframe your thoughts to be more positive and productive.
Three Lifehacker-recommended meditation and mindfulness apps to turn to in stressful times:
- Insight Timer is a community-based mindfulness app. (iOS, Android)
- Ten Per cent Happier teaches you meditation skills in one-on-one sessions. (iOS, Android)
- Waking Up by Sam Harris is a 28-day app-based mindfulness course. (iOS, Android)
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