If it seems like the news is just one depressing, terrifying, soul-crushing story after another, you’re onto something. The news media know how to get your attention; they make their headlines too scary to ignore. So you click, you freak out, you spread the word. Research shows that bad news moves faster than good news—and it can have nasty effects on your mental health.
Once upon a time we turned to the nightly broadcast for our current events; now more people under 30 go to the Web for their news than anywhere else. When details of chemical weapons in Syria are mixed in with updates from your friends and favorite celebritweeters, the results can be jarring. And when Zuckerberg and his internet.org crew succeed in doubling the number of people online to 5 billion, the tangled Web of information is bound to get ever more tangly.
It is increasingly difficult to discern what is news and what is editorial or pure rumor until after you’ve clicked on a link, and by then you’re usually already sucked in. If it’s not the CNN app on your phone, it’s your mom’s best friend ranting about Obamacare in your Facebook feed. In the 24-hour news cycle, information never stops—neither does disinformation, doubt, fear or panic. What’s a wi-fi-connected girl to do?
“There is no one right way to stay connected,” says Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston. But there are things you can do to stay sane in a world of constant contact. It's a bit like sticking to a healthy diet—a mix of gobbling up good stuff and limiting damaging indulgences. Here’s your four-step information nutrition plan:
1. Practice Mindful Consumption
Your response to distressing news can bleed into other parts of your life without your realizing it. A 1997 study in the British Journal of Psychology found that not only did watching negative news make people feel more anxious about the state of the world, it also made them feel worse about their own lives. Seeing a negative newscast made people more likely to turn small personal issues into major sources of anxiety. (Mind you, this study was done before we all carried a virtual wire service in our pocket.) Evaluating your sources of stress and keeping tabs on your emotional responses to news can help you stay in control of those negative emotions.
"Some of the best tools for offsetting the overload of negative news is to spend some time cultivating mindfulness and gratitude," says Rutledge. "You don’t have to ignore the news. In fact, we don’t want to lack empathy for the plight of others. At the same time, we can remind ourselves of the things we do have and experience moments of appreciation." She suggests setting an alarm to go off a few times throughout your day. When it goes off, take a few deep breaths and think about something you are grateful for. "A friend, a sunny day, a good lunch—it doesn’t matter what—as long as you are appreciating your world.” Positive psychology research has shown time and again that expressing gratitude makes a significant impact on subjective wellbeing and optimism.
2. Read the Labels
There are so many sources for news, from online news services to blogs and retweets, it’s tough to tell whom you should trust. Do your homework. "If [the story] is important, check multiple sources," says Rutledge. "Remember that everyone has an agenda beyond the story and evaluate the news content from that vantage point. Get a second opinion." For instance, if you find a story on a site with a strong political bent, seek out a perspective from across the aisle. Look for reputable sites (trusted news organizations, universities, hospitals, government agencies) and thorough, specific reportage.
3. Don’t Believe the Hype
Just like fad diets, Photoshopped before-and-after pictures and banner ads screaming, “How I lost 30 pounds in 30 seconds,” headlines don’t tell the whole story. “The human brain is hard-wired to notice things that are scary or out of the ordinary as part of our basic survival instinct," says Rutledge. "It’s easy to feel like everything is dangerous when the news reports negative events. You must remember that while the news may cover a mugging, it won’t report all the people who walked down that same street without incident.” If you find yourself in a perpetual state of fear, do some research to put your concerns in context. For instance, the increasing frequency of cataclysmic storms is frightening. Your chances of dying in one? According to the National Safety Council, about 1 in 126,000.
4. Focus on Portion Control
Nutrition experts often say that grazing—picking nonstop at food rather than sticking to defined meal and snack times—is one of the quickest ways to let your eating get out of control. The same might be said of constantly checking social media. YouBeauty Relationship Expert David Sbarra, Ph.D., warns that smartphones and tablets are interfering with our ability to engage with each other on a personal level. “The more connected we are to our machines, the more disconnected we are to the people in our lives,” he says. Try reversing the trend from time to time: Disconnect to reconnect. He suggests setting some basic guidelines, such as: no technology at the dinner table, no Facebooking in bed and observing a “digital Sabbath” over the weekend. Taking a break will allow you to reset to normalcy. Adds Rutledge, “The important thing is to ask yourself when technology helps and when it gets in the way.”
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