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Archive for the ‘Information anxiety’ Category

Media distancing – word as virus

April 2020 – I recommend the practice of ‘media distancing’ for your psychological well-being. — (Just as social distancing is advised for physical well-being). — It’s the opposite of having your head in the sand, and there’s an art to it.

Continual exposure to the news (including large sections of social media) doesn’t make us safe – it mostly just increases anxiety. I strongly encourage avoiding unnecessary exposure to certain types of “news” prevalent at the moment – although the types you might better avoid (and the evaluation of “necessary” vs “unnecessary”) will be personal, given that everyone reacts differently.

Example: I was recently exposed – inadvertently and unfortunately – to a “news” item posted by Derbyshire police on social media. It showed their drone footage of a couple walking their dog in the Peak District. The Derby police publicly shamed this couple for walking in a remote location – an activity they brand as “NOT ESSENTIAL” (in the context of government rules to prevent virus spread). Seeing this strangely authoritarian video posted by police definitely increased my background anxiety for several hours. For reference, here is a link to a BBC piece about the police video and critical responses to it – if you’re feeling masochistic.

(I finally managed to get some light relief from this stuff by relaxing with Alien: CovenantRidley Scott‘s vivid apocalyptic film-nightmare about evil spores which inevitably get into your body and then rapidly grow into predatory alien things which viciously eat their way out of your stomach or chest when you least expect it!)

Not that I want to make any sweeping generalisations about media coverage. That way lies Trump-style idiocy and anti-“MSM” populism. You don’t have to believe that the news media is uniformly bad to practice avoiding it. But if you do need more incentive to curb your news-consuming habit, consider the following (from Rolf Dobelli’s article, News is bad for you):

News has no explanatory power. News items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no… The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand…

News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system…

News inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory…

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence… It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic.

Bottom line? You can probably reduce your consumption of “news” to a fraction of what it is at the moment, yet still stay informed on what you regard as essential information. That’s what I mean by ‘media distancing’ – you keep it at arm’s length away from your psyche, so to speak (mainly by avoiding it, having it switched off, etc). You thus reduce anxiety, which seems like a good outcome for everyone.

Several people I know are using this time to catch up on book reading. I am too (I’ve just finished William Gibson’s latest novel, ‘Agency’. Next is a re-read of Greg Goode’s ‘Standing as Awareness’). 

(See also something I wrote for Anxiety Culture back in the 1990s, titled ‘Media-free zones’, which made some similar points to Dobelli’s piece linked above. Update: As a commenter below has kindly noted, there’s a longer version of Dobelli’s ideas about avoiding news here).

Written by NewsFrames

April 1, 2020 at 10:58 am

Media-free zones – avoiding toxic “news”

April 25, 2013

I wrote this in the 1990s (for a magazine). I’m resurrecting it here for two reasons – 1) a recent Guardian article (News is bad for you) makes similar points, and, 2) I’ve had my fill of “news” lately, and plan to practise what I preach here…

news-is-bad-for-you“Information anxiety” is caused by
the “ever widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand”, according to Saul Wurman, who coined the term. But what makes us think we should understand any of it?

There are two common notions about “being informed”: i) it’s irresponsible not to be, and ii) it’s unsafe not to be. In other words, social consensus (which defines “irresponsible”) and basic survival anxieties (which define “unsafe”) lead to information anxiety – so perhaps it shouldn’t be underestimated as a social influence.

Most people probably feel Oprahfied to some extent – ie pressured to have opinions on everything the media defines as important. And they fear falling behind. (According to a report in the Guardian,1 nearly half the population have this fear).

This is partly due to “good marketing” – the advertisers’ and content-providers’ constant drip, drip of things you “should” know about is intended to induce anxiety, so you spend money to relieve it. (A major UK company’s marketing chief once admitted to me that his profession was concerned entirely with stimulating consumer fear and greed).2

As a selling strategy, “fear of being left out” has no limits when applied to media (entertainment/information-based) products. There’s a limit to how many cars you need, but there’s no limit to what you “should” know about.

clear-channel2The info-anxiety theory recommends that we find more effective ways to process information, so we can absorb more without being overwhelmed. A better approach, however, might be to simply filter out the 99.9% of information that serves no purpose for you.

How much “information” consists of people making noises to avoid listening to themselves think? Media presenters tend not to be quietly reflective. The over-representation of “loud” personalities on TV no doubt contributes to the increasingly accepted notion that “quiet introspection” is a mental illness – peaceful isolation from extroversion and media noise seems like a difficult commodity to find.

Fortunately, you don’t need a cave to escape to – you can take a holiday from info-noise without going anywhere, simply by changing a few parameters of your mental processes. This technique has existed in various forms for centuries – used by “eccentrics” who wanted to revive their faculty of thinking, as opposed to having people’s thoughts (ie reflection rather than verbal loops).

Side effects included improved imagination and weirder dreams. You might enjoy trying it:

→ For a set period (eg 1 or 2 weeks), completely avoid TV, newspapers, magazines, radio, browsing in newsagents, topical chatter, etc [2013 update: add online news & social media to the list]. This is done by refusing such stimuli any admittance to your mind.

Mass-media “information” largely consists of non-useful, vaguely entertaining distraction. Of the non-trivial, non-amusement content (eg some of “the news”), most concerns things you’re powerless to influence. (Conversely, the issues you might influence seem notably absent).

Why clutter your brain with things you can do nothing about? How can it be irresponsible or unsafe to ignore it, if (at best) it’s of no positive use to you, and (at worse) it damages your health?

2013 addition: The recent Guardian piece I mentioned makes pretty much the same points (plus several others). I recommend a good look at it. Here are a few quotes:

“Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory.”

“Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.”
(‘News is bad for you’, Guardian, 12/4/13)

1. The Guardian, 22/10/96
2. M&SFS Head of Marketing, 1990

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

April 25, 2013 at 8:19 am