If I had to do lockdown again, I would cut back on media…

In my younger years, I used to backpack around the world. One time I met an Australian girl who mentioned that she never consumed any news at all. This has always stuck in my mind. I was amazed and asked her was she not worried about missing out on anything important? Her insightful reply was that if it were important enough people would tell her.

She gave the example of 9/11. The day after 9/11, someone said to her ‘Did you hear what happened?’, and filled her in with all the key details. It is true: people do have an urge to share news with other people.

I have been thinking about her sage-like advice over the past few weeks. I feel utterly burned out. My self-analysis is it is not the stress of dealing with the virus but following the media all around it that has melted my head.

I have overdosed on media like a starlet at a cocaine party. I subscribed to the Irish News, The New York Times, The Irish Times, The Economist. This is on top of following free sites like the BBC and The Guardian.

Don’t get me started on Twitter. I have had an account there for over ten years now. I always avoided getting sucked into the void as I could always see its addictive potential. Twitter is crack cocaine for news junkies – non-stop hits perfectly designed to target your dopamine receptors. You feel like a rat pressing the lever in a skinner box. As the saying goes using Twitter is like trying to take a drink from a firehose.

I work in the Internet and Marketing; I know how all this works. I know all about variable rewards. Twitter is a slot machine of news – pull the lever and watch the dials spin.

I have read Indistractable and Digital Minimalism. I know what I am meant to do, but there is nothing like a pandemic to make you fall off the wagon.

Being well-read and up on the news is a massive part of our cultural capital. It is seen as the mark of a good citizen to always be involved in public discourse and to be up to date with what is going in the world. But like most things, you can have too much of a good thing.

The issue is the sheer quantity of news and information in the modern world. We get more news fired at us every day than our grandparents would have gotten in a year. As humans, we are designed to always to be looking at our environment. Looking for threats – but the daily information tsunami is overwhelming us.

TV News is particularly harmful. I have not had live TV in over ten years now; we just stream the things we want to watch. Occasionally I will be in my parent’s house, and I will catch the news if they are watching it. When you go back to the news after not watching it for a while, you soon see it looks feckin’ terrifying. Dramatic music, fast cuts, the slow deep tones of the presenters telling you the latest doom. You could get PTSD just from watching it.

The past week I have been making an effort to turn off the firehose. When I get up in the mornings now I make a cup of tea and read a book. I don’t look at the internet at all for at least two hours. My general goal is to reduce the noise. We are at a non-stop all you can eat buffet – our goal is to resist the temptation not to overeat.

It is probably unrealistic to avoid all media but you can try an information diet for a week. It is simple to try:

  • Don’t watch any TV news
  • Don’t listen to radio news or debate shows
  • Stay off social media. If you can’t give up Twitter, try setting a daily limit or only looking at it at a fixed time, e.g. for ten minutes after your dinner. You can use the screentime controls on your phone to enforce limits.
  • Don’t read any online news. You can still read Slugger because we only have a few posts a day.

Do:

  • Buy a physical paper. A newspaper does a great job of digesting the news and giving it to you in a calmer style. It does not have the breaking news! Real-time updates! of the internet and it is all the better for it.
  • Listen to podcasts – I prefer to listen to someone calmly explain their views over an hour-long podcast rather than the rushed approach of traditional media.
  • Read a magazine – like a paper, a magazine can be more reflective and informative.
  • Listen to music – nothing like a good tune to calm the soul.
  • Go for lots of walks – walking clears the head.

By turning down the firehose of information, you will be amazed by how calmer you feel after a few days. Your goal is to improve your focus so you can read a book for more than five minutes without reaching for your phone.

Paradoxically you will feel more informed by reducing your information intake. Too much information and choice have a paralysing effect, as anyone who has ever tried to pick an ice cream flavour from the 30 on offer at Maud’s knows. Giving your brain time to process things helps you see the wood from the trees.

Even if you think you have a healthy approach to media, give the information diet a try. You might be surprised by the results.

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