Cruelty dominates the headlines. Even ignoring the scaremongering tabloids, exaggerated events, and falsified rumours, the daily news is rarely a bundle of laughs. This constant stream of negativity has led many to feel dispirited, even when hearing about distant events we cannot affect. The importance of being informed about current affairs cannot be overstated. However, should we also consider the effect that this avalanche of information is having on us?
The news we consume can have a significant impact on our mental health; a study conducted by the University of Bradford suggested that exposure to stressful news can cause symptoms akin to PTSD. Even when reading about distant atrocities, exposure to negative news can have damaging effects on a reader’s psyche. This may contribute to the stratospheric rise in youth mental health problems that the media constantly report on – ironically creating an even more stressful news environment. But instinctively, most of us feel that we have a duty to be informed about what’s going on in the world. That conflict isn’t easy to resolve, leading people to fall into self-conscious ignorance or informed dejection.
The rise of social media has made blissful ignorance even more difficult. An ill-judged comment in Mumbai can spark discord across the world, echoing through tweets, comments, and opinion pieces. If you want to cut yourself off from the flow of news, you must also distance yourself from many of your friends as well. This collusion of current affairs and personal lives has turned Twitter into a battlefield, and Facebook into an unending stream of the disappointing views of distant relatives. Yet, we still turn to these platforms when we need to relax, being bombarded with the world’s woes when we are least likely to be able to process them.
I am not implying that being informed is bad; we need to know what’s going on to function in our society. Indeed, only the wealthiest, most privileged shut-in can afford to pay no attention to the news. Allowing it to dominate your time, however, is clearly not healthy. Constant concern for the big picture can overwhelm our day to day lives. This goes beyond basement-dwelling trolls setting the internet straight; how many people do you see, glued to their social media feeds while out with friends?
On top of all that, we are now frequently reminded to beware of Fake News. While sensationalism and political bias date back to town criers, the demands of modern citizenship have made the truth an invaluable commodity. This has provided media institutions with incredible power to influence opinion by manipulating the way that news is presented. Some unscrupulous organisations even entirely fabricate stories, spreading them through social media and unreliable news outlets. Engaging with news has become a paranoid game of trust; we cannot risk passively consuming media, lest we are deceived. This ramps up the stress of engaging with news, and the difficulty of being truly well informed.
There are some basic things that you can do to keep living as an informed citizen, while minimising the psychological impact it will have. To start, you can restrict the time you spend reading the news. You don’t need to check the headlines every fifteen minutes to remain on the ball. Try signing up to a daily newsletter from a reputable paper instead: this inherently limits the amount of time you can spend reading the news, while ensuring you don’t miss anything vital. If possible, avoid eternally scrolling through your social media timelines. You can keep in touch with friends without locking yourself in their echo chamber.
Further, try to avoid sensationalism. Many news sources go out of their way to exaggerate stories and emotionally affect the reader. The neutral presentation favoured by the broadsheet newspapers and major news broadcasters carries less blunt force than tabloids. This doesn’t mean they’re more accurate, but they are less likely to blow issues out of proportion, or directly manipulate you. Again, social media can be a significant culprit in this area – a professional journalist is more likely to give you a neutral account than a random individual.
Finally, chat about it! If you keep consuming negative news, then pressure can build up with no available outlet. Talking and complaining to friends can help relieve some of that pressure, and you might even find a way that you can make a difference. This is a place where engaging with social media can be constructive, but be careful. Discussing political issues with friends can be cathartic, but shouting into the void can make you even more frustrated.
While the world is no worse off than in the past, modern technology means that we can pipe global misery directly into our brains. This means we can address those problems, and make the world an even better place, but we shouldn’t discount the effect that it’s having on our wellbeing. By practising basic information hygiene, we can remain informed about the state of the world without allowing it to beat us down. The truth matters, but you matter too.