For thousands of years people only knew what was happening in the closest proximity to where they lived on the planet. Hunting for food and fighting off saber-toothed tigers took priority. When we started building empires, news began traveling around, yet we still only heard occasional local gossip. Even with the rise of the newspaper we swallowed a dose of stress once a day and moved on with our lives.
Prehistoric times wired our brain for vigilance. We still scan the environment for danger lurking in the shadows, yet the modern era poses threats unimaginable to our ancestors, threats that we pose on ourselves and one another. One of the biggest culprits? The endless news cycle we consume with utter disregard for the toll it might take on our mental and physical health.
“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” ― G. Michael Hopf
News is inescapable. It is so present in our lives that we would have to turn off all our devices, burn the newspaper, and lock the door to our house against visitors to be rid of it. Still, some of us seek it out on purpose. We think it’s our duty and obligation to stay informed, we’re afraid we might miss something essential and perhaps be left behind by society because of our lack of knowledge. We worry ourselves into an early grave.
The habit of binging bad news is called doomscrolling. The term is used to describe surfing the Internet in an obsessive manner to learn every tiny detail of a particular disheartening event or set of events. It tends to be heightened during times of crisis and uncertainty, and results from the need to know more about a negative situation to better prepare for the consequences of it. However natural this reaction might seem to some of us, the vicious cycle of doom and gloom on the Internet will only make you feel worse.
Research shows that one in five Americans gets their news from social media rather than traditional media. We turn to online sources for answers, we search for hope but most of what we find is bad news, or even fake news, biased news, and misinformation. After a while, our antennas are tuned into misery so much that it finds us without our effort. Doomscrolling is a new term, but the destructive tendency to binge negativity is as old as time.
TV? No, Thank You
Since the invention of TV we have come a long way in understanding its impact on our lives and our health. Thanks to research, we are now aware that exposure to commercial television can reduce cognitive ability in children, contributes to a decline in verbal memory and cognition in older adults, and has been linked to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
TV makes our brains more alert but less-focused. While our cognition deteriorates, we also become stressed and anxious. Although there has been a significant generation gap in TV consumption, with the younger generation turning towards streaming platforms and the Internet, an average American still devotes over 4 hours of their day to watching TV (the negative impact of it becomes quantifiable at 3.5 hours a day). So what happens if we focus solely on one particular dimension of television?
In the world of news, every day brings impending doom and the end of the world. We see people getting sick, hurt, and dying. We watch catastrophes, natural disasters, calamity, violence, hostility, destruction, terrorist attacks, dishonesty, corruption, manipulation, dread, worry, pain, envy, injustice… this gruesome and disheartening tale never ends.
What contributes to this spread of negativity is our bias, the fact that humans react more strongly to negative information. In their pursuit of ratings and advertisers, media companies push the kind of news that is sensational, one-sided, and manipulative in nature to keep us glued to the screen. It is decided for us what is most important, how it is presented, and when we can hear about it.
"Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear." — Edgar Allan Poe
No News Is Good News
Rolf Dobelli, author of Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life, underlines that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. We swallow small bites of issues and occurrences that rarely ever concern our lives and almost never require thinking. This colorful candy is our poor alternative to a healthy nutritious diet of books or long-form articles that stimulate our brain and add tangible value to our lives.
Bad news is toxic to our health and to our understanding of the world. In his TED Talk and follow-up article, Rolf Dobelli presents a number of solid arguments to support this statement. For example, he highlights the fact that news makes our brain interpret anything sensational or terrifying as occurring more frequently than it actually does. As a result, we get irrationally frightened of something with a very low likelihood of actually happening.
Furthermore, news is usually irrelevant, misleading, and lacks explanation. It will focus on whatever elicits the desired reaction of shock from the audience, not on the elements of the story that actually matter or would be beneficial for us to learn. Hence, we can never be presented with the whole picture but merely a snippet, a tiny fraction of reality.
It comes as no surprise that news also inhibits thinking and hinders creativity. It’s specifically designed to interrupt your day intrusively and steal your attention. Even if you intentionally search for it yourself, as your eyes jump from one news headline or excerpt to the next, your concentration and comprehension get weaker, your thinking becomes tired and shallow, and your creativity has no room to breathe.
A Bitter Pill To Swallow
Negative sensationalism in the news has a detrimental effect on our bodies. It constantly triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline which puts us into states of chronic tension and acute stress. Fear is crucial to our survival. Yet, there’s a tremendous difference between being worried for a few minutes because a dog is barking at you and being bombarded with news that elicit the same fight or flight response from you constantly.
Because of the endless news cycle, your body feels under attack 24/7 and loses its ability to repair itself. You put yourself at risk of digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, immunity issues, weight gain, memory impairment, anxiety, and depression. On top of that, since our novel sources of information have been increasingly visual and shocking, at this point in human history news is believed to cause symptoms of PTSD.
Most of us can feel it in our bones, news is a strong mood-shifter (for the worse, of course). But research also shows that watching or reading news exacerbates our personal concerns that are in no way relevant to the content of the news stories. We only have one body and we only have one mind. We encourage you to do your health a favor and avoid unnecessary toxicity before it’s too late.
Cute Puppies and Doom
Social media is a new dimension. It’s firmly stitched to the fabric of reality, yet it remains a separate realm of half-truths and illusions. It’s an expectations vs. reality trap that can keep us connected to the entire world, and make us lonely and depressed at the same time.
It can be a wonderful tool to meet new friends, find a job, experiment with your creativity, or promote your work. Yet, social media is also a theatre of shadows, a highly curated and sometimes bluntly fake version of people’s lives. Mindlessly scrolling through profiles of superficial perfection can make you feel like you are not measuring up. Have you ever fallen down the rabbit hole of TikTok videos? It’s fun for a while. Until you realize that hours have passed by and all you feel is emptiness or envy towards toned bodies dancing like seasoned professionals while you are on a journey of healing from body dysmorphia.
Still, gone are the days when the only annoying element in our feed was a friend oversharing their life. A sneaky layer of negativity is hiding in between cute puppy videos, toxic positivity, and sponsored content of whatever you’re presently interested in – an array of news pieces and digital clutter. Like everything else on social media, it creeps up to you when you least expect it. It can disguise itself as something entirely different only to hit you even harder when you finally click on it. We were eager to mute the content of that oversharing friend. Same rules should apply to harmful news daggers.
Glittery apps can make our phones unputdownable. As a result, we are missing our lives falling victim to clickbait headlines and panicky information that will only detune our nervous system. We need to be very careful of how we consume online content to catch the moment when it stops being fun or educational. Scrolling through doom online is only good for developing the mean world syndrome. One grim story after another can make you fearful of people, opportunities, and adventures. Assess your risks and potential danger, avoid anything reckless. Just make sure you also say yes to life.
“Social media can be a gallery of lives you aren’t living. Of diets you aren’t following. Of parties you’re not attending. Of holidays you’re not on. Of fun you’re not having. So, cut yourself a break and scroll your mind instead. Scroll your consciousness for reasons to be grateful to be you. The only fear of missing out that matters is the fear of missing out on yourself.” – Matt Haig
Solutions And Alternatives
The best way to maintain your health and sanity would be news abstinence. If you are addicted, that will certainly not happen overnight, however, there are ways you can implement positive changes from today.
Start by curating your social media feed. Unfollow profiles that never add any positive value to your life. Radically eliminate the most inconspicuous tidbits of negativity. Reduce the number of platforms you use to the ones that bring you the most joy. Turn off notifications on your phone. Take a social media detox for a day, or if you’re brave enough, for an entire week (you’ll see you will not miss anything important).
Set boundaries, take time off, and rest. Read more books, reconnect with nature and with long-lost friends, play board games, exercise, watch a comedy, and reorganize your house. Heal your heart by performing a random act of kindness for somebody, look for the tiniest positive elements in your day and write them down, journal, and create a gratitude list. Dance, sing, paint, take a photography course… should we keep going?
A little stress can be a good motivator, a lot of stress creates chaos. Redirect your energy towards what you can control. Ditch the black cloud that has been following you around. If something you need to know about occurs, trust us, you will find out one way or another (e.g. from friends and family). Be honest with yourself, you most likely have enough on your plate without the weight of the world on your shoulders. Living in fear is no way to live. There is so much goodness and joy in this world that goes unnoticed. Notice it for your own good.