It’s making you unhappy.
Our access to information today is mind-boggling. Whatever we want is at our fingertips. And we couldn’t consume it all if we tried.
Early in 2020, users were adding over 80 years’ worth of content to YouTube every day. That’s more content than anyone could consume in their entire lifetime!
We love information. But, have you ever stopped to ask, why?
Why do you keep up with the latest COVID-19 statistics? Why do you read every article on the U.S. election you can get your hands on? Why do you try to keep up to date on various domains of life— like science, local politics, movies and TV shows, or video games?
It’s important to keep up to date on what’s happening in the world! you might exclaim defensively.
But, is it?
Out of all the information you’ve consumed this year — and you’ve consumed A LOT — how much of it do you remember? How much of it was useful to you? How much of it went in one ear and immediately out the other?
Sadly, our memories don’t retain information for long. Of all the information we consume, we forget about 56% within an hour, 66% after one day, and 75% after six days.
If we’re forgetting most of the information we’ve consumed, why are we so motivated to consume it?
We each have our reasons. We fear missing out on important events. We love the self-righteous indignation we feel when we read and respond to something with which we disagree. We love to be validated. We’re bored and we’re looking to be entertained.
Of course, how we pass our time is ultimately our decision to make. But there are healthier ways of passing the time than others. And our obsession with information is probably causing us more harm than good.
The dark side of information
In 2014, the news agency The City Reporter, based in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, told its readership that the following day it would post only good news stories. Staff at the news agency wanted to prove that positive stories existed. And they succeeded. Unfortunately, they caused something bad to happen to themselves— their readership plummeted by two-thirds for the day!
Does this surprise you? How many good news stories do you think you could handle before you changed the channel?
For better or worse, we all have what is known as a negativity bias. This causes us to pay more attention to negative information than positive information.
But, so what? If this is what we are all predisposed to do, why make a big deal out of it?
The problem with having a preference for the negative is that it changes how we perceive the world. When we are repeatedly presented with negative information, like robberies or violent crimes, we begin to predict that these events happen more often than they actually do. This garbling of reality is called cognitive distortion.
Unsurprisingly, research has found a correlation between viewing negative news and feeling less positive overall. The correlation is even stronger when the news has a high personal relevance — when it has consequences for the individual or for groups the individual cares about. For some of us, consuming all this negative news may lead to mental illness.
More concerning, according to science, is that we are increasingly relying on social media for news. One study found that using social media for news, rather than for social networking, is associated with increased anxiety. Another study found that depression and anxiety are associated with more time spent on social media, using multiple platforms, and being more emotionally connected to social media. And this study found that people who use social media as their primary news source are less politically informed and are exposed to more conspiracy theories than people who primarily use other sources. Regarding this last point, it may explain some of the increasing polarization in society, which I’m sure is not helping our mental health, either.
I think you’re getting the picture. When we combine our predisposition to focus on the negative with our access to endless amounts of information that is personally relevant to us, this creates the perfect storm for anxiety and depression to flourish. On top of this, social media, with its algorithms designed to maintain our engagement, keeps us amped up on negative emotions.
A perfect example of this is the 2020 U.S. election. How did you feel leading up to it? How do you feel now? How much anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness, and hatred have you felt? Are you still feeling them today?
I know I am. And this is a problem.
Say “goodbye” to information— sometimes
Disconnecting from the news and information more generally is easier said than done. There are a lot of emotional barriers to break through to decrease our consumption and thereby feel less stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.
Our fear of missing out — FOMO — is one such barrier. You need to give yourself permission to ignore information. Yes, ignore it! Because right now, information is controlling your behavior and making you unhealthy. But, it’s up to you to convince yourself that the world won’t end if you consume a little bit less information. If this sounds daunting, remind yourself there’s no need to commit to a lifetime of information celibacy. Just dial it down a bit and see what happens. You might stumble upon some peace for a change.
Another barrier to decreasing media consumption is the sweet, sweet feeling of self-righteous indignation. When you come upon a post or an article you don’t agree with, doesn’t it rile you up? Don’t you immediately feel like you have to respond? Like you have to show those stupid idiots how stupid their stupid opinions are? I get it, some people sound so misinformed and ignorant you just need to respond. But, do you? You don’t really feel any better afterward, and you may simply get into a pointless argument where nothing but anger and hatred are exchanged. Besides, if you think ridiculing someone for a belief they hold is going to change their mind, think again. It might even make them less likely to change their mind in the future.
Another barrier to consuming less information is validation. Validation is like the nectar of the gods. It’s supple and sweet, and once you get a taste, you’ll be back for more. Don’t you love it when people like or clap or share or comment on your posts? Doesn’t it feel like suddenly you’re good enough? The problem is, the feeling never lasts. It goes away and then the next time you post something, you cross your fingers that you’ll get the same boost as before. But, you might not. Relying on external validation to boost your ego or self-esteem is a bad life strategy. You’re putting your sense of self-worth in the hands of fate rather than in your own. And each time you wait for the world to applaud you, you are making it a little bit more difficult to break yourself out of that habit. You don’t need anyone to tell you you’re great. Instead, do the things you’ve always wanted to do but are too afraid to do. Doing those things, even poorly, will bring you more satisfaction than any number of likes ever could.
The last barrier to breaking free of information is boredom. Sometimes you’re just bored. What do you do then? If you’re like me, you instinctively reach for your phone. Don’t you ever find yourself examining all the apps you have just hoping that one will pop out at you? Like, it’ll start screaming, I’m the one you want! Pick me! Information can provide a refuge from boredom, but as we’ve seen, it’s probably not our best choice. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, find a hobby. Choose to do that rather than scroll mindlessly through posts until some alarm goes off in your head and your emotions are once again running wild. Don’t you want to escape from all that? It’s exhausting!
Look, it’s not about shunning information. Keeping informed is important and useful, but there’s a limit. Consuming too much information, especially negative information, is unhealthy. Try it — reduce the information you consume for just for a day and see how you feel.
I’ll bet you won’t regret it.
Thanks for reading!