I heard Tim Ferris say that if information is not going to prompt you to take action, help you, or help someone else, it serves no purpose. If we applied that rule to what we intake from social media, television, radio and podcasts, how much might we need to eliminate from our routines?
We choose what information we intake, including unconsciously, or mindlessly, absorbing information that causes our moods to plummet, our view of life to grow negative and our perspective on the world to be skewed to everything from bad to catastrophic.
I don’t typically like or use the word “diet.” The Oxford Dictionary describes diet as “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats or, as a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.” While I’m fine with the first definition, most people use the word diet pertaining to the second definition and in my experience, anything that restricts or causes us to lose something is not a positive experience.
I am open to making an exception to my philosophy on dieting, however, when it comes to information. There’s just way too much of it bombarding us every day and unfortunately, most of it is not factual, but either biased, opinionated or it’s downright misinformation.
Despite that, millions of us spend countless hours watching our devices, and allowing the apps to influence us as to not only what to read or watch, but allowing the devices to automatically load the next video, article or social media post that it wants us to consume. I addressed this topic last year during the height of both the pandemic and the political upheaval occurring here in the states. But the same problems arise even when there are not life-altering circumstances threatening us.
Consuming too much information is not that different than consuming too much food, especially when we do it mindlessly. Consider the documentary from almost 20 years ago, Supersize Me. Eating one McDonald’s hamburger probably isn’t going to impact our health, but eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month resulted in serious health implications for Morgan Spurlock, the documentary’s director and star.
Think of your favorite snack, that delectable sweet or salty item that brings you comfort when stressed or that you periodically crave to the point of distraction. If you choose to have it periodically, not much damage done. But if you mindlessly consume it 10 hours a day, well, you’ve probably got a problem.
Can you imagine eating Cheetos or Snickers or French fries nonstop for 10 hours a day? Probably not, because you wouldn’t make that choice, knowing that it would be terrible for you. But we actually do this with information. We constantly stream apps or stay plugged into social media 10 hours or more a day, allowing a constant information dump into our brains without discerning whether it’s healthy for us or not. That’s mindless behavior that is impacting our mental health.
Then there’s doomscrolling, a compulsive behavior of trawling through feeds without pause, no matter how bad the news is or how many trolls are negatively commenting on the feeds. There are multiple reasons why the urge to read may be so strong including the feeling of safety in knowledge, especially during challenging times, the design of social-media platforms that constantly refresh and boost the loudest voices, and, of course, our human fascination with tragedy and gore, like how we can’t look away when we see a car accident.
Although we intuitively know that doomscrolling makes us feel terrible and studies verify this, linking both anxiety and depression to increased time on smartphones, it also feels somewhat soothing. According to Dean McKay, a Fordham University psychology professor who specializes in compulsive behavior and anxiety disorders, “The precursor to going online was that people would watch the 11 o’clock news, which was terrifying.” That terror, when witnessed from the comfort of the viewer’s home, however, had a potentially calming effect. McKay describes the attitude as people acknowledging “things are pretty horrible, but I’m comfortable, so I'm going to be able to sleep well tonight knowing that I can feel good about my station in life”.
McKay suggests doomscrolling could be a “modern equivalent”. But, unlike the 11:00 news, it doesn’t stop at a fixed hour. We get sucked into the never-ending news cycle about whatever horrible thing is occurring in the world because we think if we have more information about it, we’re safer.
Pamela Rutledge, director of the California-based Media Psychology Research Center, says that doomscrolling really just describes the compulsive need to try and get answers when we’re afraid and that we’re biologically driven to attend to that. Considering the experiences we’ve faced over the past 18 months, there’s probably been a lot of doomscrolling going on. While that may sound reasonable, most people scroll well past the point of ascertaining any valuable information.
Psychologist Jade Wu describes dwelling in a kind of endless feed can look a lot like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. She says GAD is basically a Twitter feed of worries in our heads. And since GAD is associated with problems like muscle tensions, fatigue and depression, she thinks similar effects could happen to habitual doomscrollers. According to Wu, “if you run every day, that's going to impact your muscles. If you doomscroll every day, that’s going to impact your psychology and your brain.”
Maybe it’s time to go on an information diet. The key is awareness, or mindfulness. If we stick with the analogy of food, people on diets keep food logs which are one of the biggest predictors of success for releasing weight because it makes us aware of our habits. The same could go for doomscrolling or just consuming too much negative news. Rutledge recommends keeping track of how much time you spend doing it to “identify the negative tendency, then take steps to change it”.
Try setting a timer to stay alert as to how long you’re spending on your devices, establish a time in the evening when you turn off the devices for the day and if needed, find an information overload partner so that you can support each other in reducing exposure.
It’s important to note that the latest studies show that we can’t really break habits because they become permanently imprinted in our brains, but that we can replace them, which overlays that initial imprint. If that’s the case, you could try hope scrolling or joy scrolling. Instead of mindlessly absorbing negative news, mindfully choose to spend time only viewing positive information. Studies show that scrolling through good news brings us joy and could help make us more aware of how our online behaviors affect our emotional states.
I’m going to work on adopting Tim Ferris’ rule and start questioning what information I’m consuming. Is this information going to prompt me to take action, help me or help someone else? If not, it serves no purpose, so I’ll shut it down or seek more useful information.
As with any change, the most successful strategy is to start small. Ease into replacing negative information with more positive feeds or news and slowly reduce the amount of time you spend on devices in general. In the end, you’ll not only be more mindful but your mental health will improve and that’s probably something we could all benefit from.
Until next time. We can live better lives and create a better world. All it takes to get started is a mindful moment.