Is Facebook Fast Food?

My previous post explored the “information gathering problem” for folks with mental health issues. People with anxiety issues often have to make a decision between staying informed and suffering the effects of a frightening news story. Especially this year, they’re not the only ones suffering from this problem. An October 2016 Politico article described a spike in Americans reporting arguably justified anxiety about things they hear in the news.

Breaks from the flow of media intake can often be necessary, but we don’t want people turning off the taps altogether. The functioning of a democratic society requires the consumption of sometimes-troubling information. Anxiety shouldn’t be entirely avoided, either. It can get people out of their seats and propel them into political engagement. The anxiety in question here is the unproductive kind, the sort that sets the mind on a neurotic loop, saps concentration and, eventually, bleeds people of the will to engage. How to reduce this sort of worry to a level manageable enough to allow one to stay informed?

It’s worth asking whether a certain media diet may be the solution. That is to say: does consuming the same information in two different ways produce higher or lower levels of counterproductive anxiety? Suggestions on what the optimum InfoWatchers plan might be are the purview of a psychologist or a mental health practitioner. Broadly speaking, however, such a diet would regulate the methods, times and frequency of consumption, as well as the outlets and content consumed.

Jocelyn K. Glei, a Los Angeles Blogger who writes about productivity and the distractions that social media presents, suggests shifting from using social media to constantly monitor the news cycle to subscribing to weekly or monthly publications — magazines, newspapers, etc. These outlets should produce content that places new developments in context.

Glei quotes blogger and Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs, who writes in his blog Text Patterns: “I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion.”

This approach has been beneficial for me over the past few months, although social media’s addictiveness has made my diet difficult to keep. One small habit that I’ve maintained has been getting my political news from a couple of daily Politico email newsletters. They’re quick and easy to consume, and as such do contain the kind of pull quotes that can be anxiety-inducing, but they’re also finite: once you reach the end of the email body, you can conclude your scrolling. I try to identify one or two linked articles to read all the way through in order to gain some perspective on an issue, but once I’m done I can delete the email and take the next few hours, at least, off from monitoring my feed.

-JT

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