The Case for Limiting Your Exposure to the News Right Now, According to a Psychologist
If my friends and family are any indication of the bigger picture, I'm not alone. They're sending me alarming/disturbing/depressing links at all hours of the day and night, too, and I've seen a spike in anxious or despairing rhetoric among them that appears to be in proportion to the amount of news they're digesting. In other words, this overexposure is having deleterious effects with respect to our mental health—for many, it seems, too much news is bad news.
In these troubled times, then, is it wise for some—if not most—of us to turn off news alerts, limit access to social media, and just generally minimize exposure to current events? This strikes me as somewhat irresponsible—it's an election year, and we have to stay informed!—but if it's protecting our health, perhaps some restraint is advisable?
Absolutely, says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, who posits that avoiding overexposure right now has the power to reduce unnecessary stress. "Things are stressful enough without thinking about it all day," she says.
When you do want updates, there are measured ways to get them that may also help reduce the spread of misinformation. "Pick a couple of good sites and go directly there for your news," says Dr. Daramus. "Never share or retweet anything from a site you don’t recognize, and maybe look at a fact-checking site before you share anything."
From a mental health-standpoint, Los Angeles-based psychologist Sarah Neustadter, PhD adds that reading the news is better than watching it. "The format is less invasive," she says. "Visuals can leave a real impact in our minds." And if you're really struggling and feel the need to avoid it all, Dr. Neustadter recommends enlisting a friend or family member to send critical updates only as necessary.
Since socializing in person has been somewhat hindered by the pandemic, Dr. Daramus does not recommend similarly significant social media restrictions, but she does suggest altering the way you use platforms such as Twitter or Instagram. "Social media should be a stress-reliever instead of a stressor," she says. "Have long phone and text conversations that deepen a relationship, look at funny memes and videos, nerd out with an online role-playing game, look at the videos sent from the Mars rovers, get together with a few friends online and live-tweet your favorite show, etc."
Dr. Neustadter, meanwhile, is less keen on social media use and advises reaching out via telephone, FaceTime, or even text message to stay connected with the people in your life. In fact, she recommends "doubling down" on checking in with each other for moral support in these lonely times.
Both pros recommending editing the sites/feeds/people enabled to reach you through notifications or otherwise. You can also, of course, mute the people in your social feeds who consistently share news so you can safely enjoy non cortisol-spiking posts. "And if you love your daily news, maybe look more at tech, entertainment, or general health and wellness news," says Dr. Daramus.
No matter what measures you take, however, you can't always avoid unsolicited updates. So, Dr. Neustadter offers tips on setting boundaries with the people in your life most prone to sharing them. "If you know somebody that's going to be sending you updates that are unnecessary for you to read, you can just ignore them," she says. "If you really can't ignore them, you just have to say, 'Hey, I appreciate that you're looking out for me at this time, but I really don't want to be reading or looking at a lot of news sources right now so please stop sending me links."
Ultimately, there's a difference between staying up-to-date on important events and doomscrolling, and the latter isn't even productive. Dr. Daramus suggests considering ways in which you might fill time recovered from this bad habit that could have a better long-term payoff, too. After all, volunteering at the polls, protesting with Black Lives Matter, or donating your time to a food bank are all productive ways to work to change what's on the news which, I think we can all agree, is better than letting ourselves drown in digital despair.
Originally published March 16, 2020; updated September 30, 2020.
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