Do you need to go on a news diet? Here’s how to tell, according to experts

Posted by for Life

An over-consumption of information is leaving us bloated and unhappy, so now it’s time to cut back. Here’s how to follow the only diet we’ll ever endorse… 

No matter how euphoric it feels at the time, overindulgence – of food, of sex, or even Instagram – always leads to discomfort of some kind. As the great philosophers of our time, the Spice Girls, knew – too much of something is bad enough. We know the gaseous regret associated with losing yourself in a hotel buffet or bottomless brunch. And much like the food coma or hangover we get after overeating or overdrinking, many of us feel similar discomfort due to overindulgence in the news cycle.

We are living in chaotic, unprecedented – and often unpresidential – times and we’re desperately trying our best to make sense of it all. The constant confusion around Brexit alone is enough to make us feel anxious, so it’s no wonder so many of us are constantly monitoring the news and staying as informed as we can – it often feels that this is literally the only thing we can do to feel in control. However, as psychology professor Mary McNaughton-Cassill told Mental Floss, this power is an illusion: “When you’re sitting at your computer monitoring all this stuff, it feels good to feel like that puts you in control. Really, none of us are in control.”

news diet
Having constant access to 24 hour news can be demoralising.

We’re trying our best to be good, responsible, informed citizens. We want to know what’s happening in the Amazon, to understand the unrest in Hong Kong, to pay attention to the melting ice caps. We now know first-hand where political and voter complacency can lead us – so it’s understandable so many of us feel like we must be vigilant. We must be “good feminists” and not only be aware of what’s happening to women in the UK, but also around the world – even if our activism mainly resides on Instagram.

ACHIEVING A BALANCE

The result of trying to stay so vigilantly informed is that it’s left many of us full to the brim with information (and misinformation). We’re overwhelmed and fraught: we’ve been dealing with Brexit and Trump for years now. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting. And even more disheartening – despite impeachment inquiries and Supreme Court justice rulings – there’s no real end in sight. The reality is, if we want to feel healthier, calmer and less anxious while still staying informed, for the sake of our own mental and physical wellbeing, we need to change our relationship with the news. And a good way to start might be the same way you could approach a well-rounded, nutritious diet: with balance and attention to both quality and quantity.

TOO MUCH INFORMATION

Studies have shown that negative news literally distorts the way we think, and that we can experience symptoms of PTSD by merely watching footage of traumatic events. It’s unsurprising that we’ve hit a point of being completely overwhelmed by news – our brains are simply not built for it. “As human beings we’re not designed for the level of stimulation we are now exposed to,” says therapist Kate Hogan. “Our brains are frazzled by all the processing and not having adequate down time to switch off. Because we’ve never had this level of information processing before, we don’t know how to regulate ourselves. This is where it can become unhealthy.”

Hogan says that our reptilian brain doesn’t understand the difference between seeing a stressful situation – a tense session of Prime Minister’s Questions – and being in one. “It’s the sense of helplessness and fear triggered by witnessing something distressing that causes the activation of our fight or flight response. So, watching distressing news and feeling unable to act will trigger the same response. Multiply that by several hours a day and we could be in serious trouble.”

News diet
"If breaking news is important to you, choose one trusted news source and have that app on your phone," says Hogan.

If we’re constantly consuming, scrolling, checking our phones and being interrupted by breaking news, we’re not giving our poor lizard brains a break. What we need is a balanced news diet, with healthy consumption habits. Intuitive eating has gained popularity in the last couple of years, and it’s worth applying a similar form of mindfulness in the way we get our news. For example, think about the time of day you’re choosing to consume – do you want to start your day reading what Trump tweeted overnight?

Think about formats, too: what makes you feel the least stressed but the most informed? Is it podcasts? A news app? You don’t need to experience news in every format it’s available. If breaking news is important to you, choose one trusted news source and have that app on your phone. However, keep in mind that knowing everything that happens, the moment it happens, changes nothing except your stress levels.

You should also remember that you curate your social feeds. We’ll never understand or get a proper explanation of algorithms from tech companies, so follow, unfollow, block or mute as needed. You can also turn off the television, delete apps and choose to not read the paper. Be aware of how you’re feeling. When you do feel the need to read a website or watch televised news, pay attention to your thoughts, your body and your mood. Is your heart rate going up? Do you suddenly feel irritable? How is your breathing? As Hogan reminds us, “Whatever happens in the world, you won’t change the outcome by keeping an eye on it every hour. This just reinforces a cycle of hyper-vigilance, which creates anxiety. This doesn’t mean you stop caring – it means you are prioritising looking after yourself.”

QUALITY NOT QUANTITY

In addition to the overall amount of news we’re consuming, it’s also the quality that’s causing problems. Culturally, we’re becoming much more aware of where our food comes from. But news doesn’t come with labels or lists of ingredients. And unlike the food industry, news feels largely unregulated, particularly on social media.

Ofcom’s 2019 report of news consumption in the UK revealed that 49% of adults use social media for news, and use it more than any other type of internet news source. However, when it comes to “quality, accuracy, trustworthiness and impartiality” as a news platform, social media was rated the lowest – magazines were rated the highest, followed closely by television.

So our second-largest source of news is also the source we trust the least. How exactly does that happen? The answer seems to lie in the intersection of how news is discovered on both search engines and social media, and the behaviour of the users who share it. For example, we know that people will comment on an article without reading it, and people will also share stories based only on a headline, without reading or even clicking to open the article.

This is particularly concerning, as the Ofcom study revealed that 41% of people getting their news from social media are not getting that news directly from news organisations, but rather from shared posts, trending stories or stories that appear in their social feeds because someone they follow has commented on it. And if people are commenting or sharing stories without so much as even opening the thing first, what are the odds that some of the stories we’re seeing and giving weight to haven’t even been clicked on by our friend who shared it? This might also explain why the adults surveyed admitted to only knowing the source of their news on social media “most” or “some” of the time. This is how the spread of fake news self-perpetuates, and while the simple sharing of a story you’ve not read may feel small, the collective, wider effects can be quite large.

“Social media is having a massive impact on our democracy and our society,” says Sarah Drinkwater, a director at the Omidyar Network, which aims to promote responsible technology. “Tech companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook claim they’re neutral platforms, but the way they’re intentionally designed means that a reputable news source such as the BBC is presented on equal footing with a bot trying to infiltrate readers with fake news and a hidden agenda. That’s what we saw happen in the US presidential election in 2016 when thousands of fake accounts were allegedly created to influence a Trump victory.”

Some media organisations are trying to counter this. Global giant News Corp is working on an app designed to aggregate news stories, reward publishers and promote stories from reputable sites – of which, one suspects, those owned by News Corp will be first in line.

Unfortunately, it feels as though the onus is on us to monitor our own behaviour online and the quality of the news we’re consuming and sharing. “We can and must take control of our social media,” Drinkwater explains. “We have the power to question the agenda of what our feed promotes. We need to control our content and be thoughtful about what we share. And we should be asking questions: what’s the source? Who is promoting it? What’s the intention?”

Clearly, the Silicon Valley giants need to be held accountable and play their part, too. Drinkwater adds that in addition to our personal responsibility for our contributions to social media, “there should be clear, ethical standards across the industry to maintain credibility of that content and what’s shared so we can once again trust our news and our social feeds.” Until then, we’ll be watching what we read.

Hillary says:

I don’t want people to turn away from the news, but I want people to be more thoughtful, intentional news consumers.

Illustration: Josie Portillo 

Images: Getty

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