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.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 short story “The Birth-Mark” centres on a young scientific scholar who develops an unhealthy obsession with a small red birthmark on his wife’s cheek. His wife is noted for her beauty, but for the young scholar the issue lies in his bride’s tantalising proximity to perfection. This one tiny aberration proves too much for him to take. He ascribes the birthmark additional meaning, viewing it as a sign of the “fatal flaw of humanity” and his wife’s “liability to sin, sorrow, decay and death” .
His bride comes to internalise her husband’s feelings and so asks him to remove this single display of her physical fallibility – to “fix” her. He conceals her in a boudoir by his laboratory and subjects her to a variety of alchemical concoctions. The wife observes of her husband that “his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed.” Eventually one of his potions succeeds in removing the birthmark. However, no sooner has it done so than his young bride passes away.
Hawthorne’s tale of the ruinous effects of perfectionism echoes louder today than ever. A study of over 41,000 people published by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill in Psychological Bulletin found that perfectionism’s prevalence in society has increased . Their study, the first of its kind in comparing perfectionism across generations (from 1989 to 2016), found significant increases in the rates of perfectionism among recent undergraduates in the US, UK and Canada compared with those of previous generations . Kate Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University says that today, “As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists…We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue” .
As Amanda Ruggeri notes, writing on the subject for the BBC, that rise in perfectionism “doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential” .
The Perfect Body
As Hawthorne’s 19th century story demonstrates, perfectionism is nothing new. But aspects of today’s society serve to exacerbate it. The correlations between the young scholar and his bride in “The Birth-Mark” and the prevalence of plastic surgery in today’s society is obvious. As the bride died in the name of her husband’s obsessive pursuit, so too do a certain fraction of today’s patients die under the knife in pursuit of plasticised perfection. Others irrevocably change their appearance again and again, never quite satisfied, always certain they’re just one operation away. They place their faith in tomorrows, which of course are only – but more crucially, always – a day away.
Cosmetic surgery deaths are the most extreme and garish example of the perfectionism phenomena, but this rut runs far deeper. There’s no longer a need to fly to the Dominican Republic for cheap tummy tuck surgery, after all. Nowadays, one can simply use an app on their phone to slice away the flab, add some colour to the skin or remove those pesky, unwanted pimples from photos. You can easily obfuscate any and all potential flaws you see within yourself at the click of a button. Social media is awash with amended images of falsified selves living picturesque lives. These beautiful unrealities are designed to suppress insecurities (that they end up exponentially worsening) through the fleeting validation afforded by the likes of friends and strangers, who are themselves represented by equally falsified avatars.
Unsurprisingly social media’s impact on body image is most harmful to the young, who spend disproportionate amounts of time online (a survey by the nonprofit research organisation Common Sense Media found that the average screen time for 13-18 year-olds was eight hours and 39 minutes a day). Research published by the American Psychological Association found that “teens and young adults who reduced their social media use by 50% for just a few weeks saw significant improvement in how they felt about both their weight and their overall appearance compared with peers who maintained consistent levels of social media use” .
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation have stated that record numbers of young people are experiencing mental illness, with depression, anxiety and suicide ideation more common in the US, Canada and UK today than even a decade ago . This is of course not all down to the ease of Photoshop botox or sepia Instagram filters. To think the nefarious effects of perfectionism are limited to the physical would be to miss the mark. Dissatisfaction with the body stems from the mind.
The Perfect Self
Curran and Hill ascribe the exponential rise in perfectionism amongst today’s youth to “increasingly demanding social and economic parameters” as well as “increasingly anxious and controlling parental practices” . In The Tyranny of Merit, the American philosopher Michael Sandel argues that meritocratic capitalism has created a permanent state of competition within society. This system sustains an order of winners and losers, “breeding hubris and self-congratulation among the former and chronically low self-worth among the latter” .
Millennials and those of younger generations are far more likely to have undertaken some form of higher education than their predecessors. And yet graduates, even those with highly specialised Master’s degrees, are finding it difficult to find work in increasingly oversaturated markets. Those who do gain employment are often settling for junior roles consisting of administrative duties that fail to make use of their (generally hugely expensive) education. They find themselves on the unrewarding bottom rung of a ladder that makes no guarantee of further ascent and pays them so little (if at all, in the era of the unpaid internship) that they often struggle to make rent or rely on a litany of exhaustive side-hustles to do so.
Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst and professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, notes that in such a culture “young people are likely to grow dissatisfied both with what they have and who they are.” Meanwhile, “social media creates additional pressure to construct a perfect public image, exacerbating our feelings of inadequacy” .
Concurrently, all around us self-help gurus preach the importance of betterment – educational, emotional, physical, financial – in droves. The idea that we must seek something better than what we have – something graspable if we just put the work in (or better yet, like and subscribe) – is pernicious, and fuels the fire of inadequacy. If we are seeking something better, it’s because there is something lacking in what we have. No wonder we feel unfulfilled when we’re surrounded by false prophets promising they have the key to fulfilment’s kingdom. Who knew satisfaction was just a pricey online self-help course away?
According to research examining 43 different studies over 20 years by York St. John University, perfectionism is linked to burnout as well as depression, anxiety and even mortality . That’s right, perfectionists die younger . Since it’s so linked to such disastrous outcomes, then, why is it we can’t kick the perfectionist habit?
Because we don’t want to. For all its obvious faults, most of us still attribute some kind of value to perfectionism. It’s become job interview parody to say that your greatest weakness is that you’re a perfectionist. As we all know, this is really a sneaky positive. Perfectionism has come to be associated with a strong work ethic, ambition, and high attainment.
Researchers argue that these benefits are illusory. Sarah Egan, a senior research fellow at the Curtin University in Perth who specialises in perfectionism, eating disorders and anxiety, notes that “the difficult part of [perfectionism], and what makes it different than depression or anxiety, is that the person often values it. If we have anxiety or depression, we don’t value those symptoms. We want to get rid of them. When we see a person with perfectionism, they can often be ambivalent towards change. People say it brings them benefits.”
It becomes an endless loop. Perfectionism brings a person dissatisfaction – maybe even depression or suicidal ideation – so they go to a therapist to fix the problem. They want to get rid of the depression, they say, but they don’t want to lose the perfectionism that contributes to it as they believe it offers them something essential. It’s like going to a personal trainer and demanding they help you lose weight while telling them you have no intention of cutting the daily fast food, sugary drinks and excessive alcohol from your diet. Something’s gotta give.
Obviously ambition, diligence and high standards are positive traits. The problem is that these traits are wrongly associated with a kind of “healthy” perfectionism, when really they’re not perfectionism at all. They’re conscientiousness . As Hill notes, “Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards…Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself” . Wanting to do well is good. Beating yourself up if you don’t is not.
Humanity’s quest for perfection
It’s possible that perfectionism is just part of our nature. Cohen draws parallels between the human strive for perfection and religious and mythical tales of divine wrath. Prometheus and the Tower of Babel provide examples of what happens when man tries to overextend his reach: the relevant divinity rains down punishment. According to Cohen, “Religious striving for moral and spiritual improvement goes in tandem with the sombre recognition that perfection belongs to God alone.” Or more strikingly, “In the religious imagination, the notion of human perfection is blasphemy” .
What to do?
As the late author David Foster-Wallace noted, “if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything” . The writer Rebecca Solnit is also succinct in her denigration of perfection’s pitfalls: “The perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun” .
To break out of the perfectionism trap takes a shift in mindset – an acceptance of fallibility. It’s a false economy, really. You can’t achieve the perfect, so why are you trying to? Elizabeth Gilbert says perfectionism is nothing more than, “fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat” . And even that may be giving it too much credit.
Hard as society makes it, it’s important not to focus on the birthmark. Better to reserve your attention for the living, breathing woman on whose cheek it sits. Singer Jeff Rosenstock’s primal shouts on his album closer Perfect Sound Whateversum it up nicely: “Perfect always takes so long because it don’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist.”
It can be worth remembering that.