News is bad for you. Maybe, once, it was good for you, or at least it felt that way. Back when it constituted, for the average non-journalist, a half an hour of television in the evening and a flick through the paper in the morning, perhaps. I imagine, then, when it was limited and contained, it may have made you feel you had a greater understanding of the world. Although a news item might profoundly upset you, you would still go about your day afterwards as always because there was no alternative.
Now, there is nothing but alternatives and no requirement to ever stop scrolling. The internet’s most attractive and dangerous quality is its infinity. We have the opportunity to access free information at a rate undreamt of for most of history. To add to the complicating factor of how we get our news now, the actual content of it has felt relentless for the last few years. On the one hand, this could be ascribed to generational narcissism- doesn’t everyone think they’re living through the most turbulent time in history? Well, no. Things really are different now. In the 90’s Francis Fukuyama literally wrote a book called The End of History, as an indicator of how settled things appeared to be then. A recent Radio 4 documentary, presented by Jonathan Freedland and titled The 90s: A Holiday from History, also talks about how nostalgia’s favourite decade was a comparative ‘oasis of calm’ to what came before it while, under the surface, the traps that would cause unrest in the 2010s were being laid.
Of course, there was no shortage of appalling events taking place globally in the 90s, but it has never been the case that mass tragedies in non-Western populations are given equivalent news coverage has it?
What we are living through now is the collapse of the idea of perpetual centrist governments, and a lack of any positive proposed replacements- leading to unforeseeable and shocking events like Trump’s election in the US and Brexit in the UK. The comparative peace of the 90’s may have felt calmer to live through, but the failure of its policies to directly reach out to the disenfranchised has led us to where we are now. The news is shocking and unpredictable and most of all constant. It comes at us from several devices at once, in red banners yelling at us at the bottom of our phones, and breaking on Twitter on a PC, and it is never, ever good. ‘History’, as Alan Bennett had it in The History Boys, ‘is just one fucking thing after another’. And right now, all the things seem to be coming at once. It’s no wonder so many of us have news burnout. Brenda from Bristol spoke for us all when news of the upcoming General Election was broken to her: ‘Not another one? For God’s sake, I can’t honestly stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment.’ Brenda, we hear you, who can keep up?!?
So, what does it mean in practical terms that we are consuming media at an unprecedented rate, and in a manner we never have before? In 2016, news media was consumed more on social media by 18-24-year-olds than on television for the first time ever. Adults spent on average 25 minutes a day more on their devices in 2016 compared to 2015. On nothing but a physical level, reading news constantly is going to give you unwanted bursts of the stress hormone cortisol, which will disrupt concentration and digestion. Once you finally get through your day, that last hour of reading stories on your tablet will stop you sleeping- studies have suggested the white light of our devices can suppress melatonin which is a hormone our bodies require to tell us it’s time for sleeping. This is before you even take into account the psychological distress of reading about horrifying events you have no control over.
Why are we are putting ourselves through this? What good is it doing? Being minute-by-minute up to date may give us a sense of being well-informed, but receiving information in this fragmented and immediate way can actually disrupt our ability to concentrate and think deeply. News pieces are, in fact, designed to disrupt, to puncture our other lines of thought. That they are doing this and also creating a panic response means they are really not doing our powers of perception any good. Understanding anything, including politics, involves longer term investigation and contemplation than we are affording ourselves when we buy into being news addicts.
News burnout is part of a broader question about how we as individuals and families and local communities interact with the world outside our immediate surroundings. The human brain is not sophisticated enough to feel the same empathy for a thousand strangers killed in an earthquake as it can for one person who lives nearby as the work of psychologist Professor Paul Slovic has found. That said, we do feel anguish at the suffering of others, and when, as so often, it is suffering we can do nothing to alleviate, it can cause us real, almost physical pain.
The obvious solution to it all is to switch off. Easier said than done, but this doesn’t mean going full-hermit or putting your fingers in your ears when a radio comes on. It just means creating boundaries within your day, and refusing to let news into those parts of it that are meant for work, or socialising, or relaxing.
In 2010 after the BP oil spill, the psychologist and ‘compassion fatigue’ expert Charles Figley gave some advice about what he called 'bad-news burnout'to news professionals at NPR: ‘You need to read your body and practice self-care. You have to gain control of your environment sufficiently to take care of yourself. When we get on a plane, they say put your mask on first and then help other people. Sometimes we don't do that.’
Figley deals primarily with professionals who habitually suffer compassion fatigue like nurses and care-workers- the stakes are of course entirely different, but the logic remains the same. We absolutely have a duty to witness acts of inhumanity, even if we are unable to do anything directly to help. We shouldn’t let the privilege we have in being able to turn off our phones and forget what’s happening to stop us doing so. Be aware of your limits, and accord with them, or else you will be of no use to anyone.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.