Can I interest you in everything, all of the time? This is the question put to us by Bo Burnham’s carnival ringmaster of all things online in ‘Welcome to the Internet’, a song from his Covid-induced comedy special come mental unravelling Inside . The song captures the imprisonment of the age, our shared, crooked addictions to the ever-flowing fountain of information that’s rarely more than a few metres from our fingertips. “Here’s a tip for straining pasta; here’s a nine year-old who died,” he grins, every bit as manic and entrancing as the technology he portrays. We all scroll idly past such travesties and worse daily on our phones, laptops and tablets. And of course it has an effect.
It’s hardly a secret that doomscrolling is bad for you. Or that too much time online is. Knowing these things does not make separation any easier. We are hooked. According to a journal published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, doomscrolling “appears as a vicious cycle in which users find themselves stuck in a pattern of seeking negative information no matter how bad the news is” . And the news is bad. Take your pick from the growing rolodex of global travesties. The war in Ukraine. The impending one in Taiwan. A food crisis in Yemen. Ongoing climate struggles. The world’s greatest living footballer shilling out for oil money from a nation with a less-than-stellar human rights record . Name your crisis, the news will find it for you; it is not low on stock.
The bad news
A 2020 Pew Research Center survey of more than 12,000 U.S. adults found that 66% felt worn out by the news. The same study shows that, “news fatigue is more widespread among the least engaged political news consumers. Nearly three-quarters of those who follow political and election news “not too” or “not at all closely” feel exhausted by the news (73%), higher than the share among those who follow political news “somewhat” (66%) or “very” closely (56%)” .In other words, political disengagement is not the answer to your prayers. Think of the news like Liam Neeson’s avenging father in Taken. It has a very particular set of skills. It will look for you. It will find you. And, to somewhat edit the final line, it will hit you with a debilitating fatigue that stalks you in your work and social life.
Unsurprisingly, this problem is more pronounced amongst the young. An American Press Institute survey found that more than 90% of Gen Z and Millennials report spending at least two hours a day online. That includes 56% who are online for more than 5 hours a day and 24% for more than 9 . The World Health Organization recommends the public “[tries] to reduce how much you watch, read or listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed” . The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, meanwhile, coined a title for those who struggle with excess news consumption: the infodemically vulnerable .
The pandemic of course played a large role in our collective news fatigue. The Economist called Covid the most dominant news story since the Second World War . I don’t think anyone with even a vague memory of the time would find that surprising. As early as April 2020, the World Health Organization was using the term “infodemic” to describe the abundance of pandemic coverage . For many, disengagement became a vital tool of survival. Walking a tightrope of well-being that a single further graph of infections vs hospitalisations threatened to tip off balance.
That said, Covid only served to exacerbate trends that had begun with social media’s growing prevalence and an age of polarisation best exemplified by the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US. The online world moved from a social space to a partisan one. It was important to have a tribe. If you didn’t choose one, one would be ascribed to you, likely unfavourably.
This no doubt contributed to an increased sense of digital fatigue as no longer were people simply consumers of news, they were engagers with it. You did not read an article, you reacted to it. Like, comment, retweet, post. It requires mental energy to not simply stay engaged but to embody engagement, building a mini-brand around your beliefs, demonstrable through the content you chose to respond to and pass on to other like-minded consumers. Social media ceased to be that Edenic place where you would blissfully log on to see what your friends were up to. Instead, it became an algorithmically dictated carousel of partisan avatars looking to prove their moral and intellectual credentials, often at the expense of an equally engaged opposing force.
As noted in the Athens Journal of Mass Media and Communications, “research has confirmed the mental health impact of news consumption. One study found heightened anxiety, even sadness, in people who watched negative news-related material, such as bulletins, after only minutes” . For citizens who want to remain engaged, then, there exists a quandary: do you sacrifice your own well-being out of a sense of civic duty, or do you cut down on your consumption, willfully opting for the bliss of ignorance?
Of course, the choice is not actually so binary. Like most things, it’s about balance. If you sense that you are feeling overwhelmed by the news – especially if you are conscious that you spend more time following it than it’s suggested you should – then take a step back. A recent study by Texas Tech University among people with problematic or high levels of news viewing found that nearly 74% experienced stress or anxiety “quite a bit” or “very much”, while sixty-one percent reported feeling physically ill “quite a bit” or “very much” . If you recognise yourself in those brackets, step back.
Targeted screen time
Time notes that, “Excessive screen time has been shown to have negative effects on children and adolescents. It’s been linked to psychological problems, such as higher rates of depression and anxiety, as well as health issues like poor sleep and higher rates of obesity” . The effects on adults are less well-documented, but are thought to be only mildly less potent. But as assistant adjunct professor of psychology at UCLA, Yalda T. Uhls, says, how much time you’re spending on your phone is far less pertinent as the content you’re consuming. To avoid news fatigue, you don’t need to throw your phone in the ocean and set up camp in Timbuktu. You can still use your phone. Just be sure to pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.
Cutting back on social media seems the best way to help yourself. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology assessing the effects of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat on the mental health of 143 college students found that if young people showed depressive symptoms at the start of the study, then reduced their social-media use to just 10 minutes per day on each platform—a total of 30 minutes on social media per day—for three weeks, their symptoms of depression and loneliness decreased .
Melissa Hunt, associate director of clinical training in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the above study, notes that, “It’s not that social media is in and of itself inherently problematic. It’s that using too much of it, or using it in the wrong way, is very problematic. My advice is if you’re going to use social media, follow friends for about one hour a day” . A Canadian study during the pandemic found that the best way to boost mental and general health was to combine a reduction in screen time with increased outdoor exercise .
Essentially, then, the solution is as simple as it is difficult: spend less time engaging with content that drains you. The obvious problem with that advice is that we are rarely engaging with such content blindly. Awareness that we are overdoing it does not preclude us from clicking on that next enticingly provocative link.
If you’re really struggling, going cold turkey might be the solution. Set limits on your phone so that there is at least some kind of barrier in place. Tell a friend or partner that you’re looking to disengage. Vocalising your intentions will likely help. If not, having someone willing to check in on you or hold you accountable is useful motivation.
And for those who don’t wish to step back their engagement out of a sense of civic responsibility, know that you’re not helping anyone by draining yourself in the name of staying informed. Making a martyr of yourself is futile. Adopt the oxygen mask rule: save yourself first. Then once you’re set, you’ll be that much better placed to help others.