“I feel like I am back to my peak pandemic habits all over again,” a friend recently shared. He went on, “I am checking my phone all the time.”
“That makes sense,” I responded with a sigh. “There is so much going on.”
“The problem is that I feel like I need to be online right now but it is also clear to me that the longer I am on, the worse I feel. But then I think maybe I should be feeling awful. There are a lot of awful things happening,” he shared.
“Yeah, I don’t think that we should necessarily try to escape the awful feelings altogether. But over-saturating isn’t helpful either. There is a fine line between being informed and being overwhelmed.”
Why information can help (and hurt) in uncertain times
There continues to be no lack of upsetting news in the world right now, both at home and abroad. Kids and parents alike are constantly inundated with breaking news, hot takes, policy opinions, petitions, memes, misinformation, videos and more. Checking our phones can put us at the mercy of a firehose of stimulation. Even though it may appear that only our thumbs are moving, our nervous systems are in overdrive.
That’s not to say that information and connection aren’t essential right now. Staying engaged and finding support matters. But when it comes to our mental health, it is clear that the near-constant onslaught of information and interaction can take a toll. We have little room to slow down, pay attention to our reactions, integrate new information, and make sense of what we are seeing and doing.
So why don’t we log off more often? There are several things that can make it difficult to unplug during uncertain times, including:
The brain is built to seek out information. The brain’s “seeking system” is built to reward us for exploring, being curious, and learning new things. This is a good thing! But it means that every time we get a notification or receive a text, our seeking circuits compel us to respond. Platforms often exploit this drive by delivering content in dramatic ways that grab our reactive attention and ignite the seeking brain, making it more difficult to unplug.
Fear drives attention. When we are anxious or fearful, we are wired to pay more attention to information related to threats. This also makes sense. Fear puts us on high alert for information that we perceive to be essential to our survival, telling us, “Hey! Look here!” The challenge is that as we pay attention to information related to the threat, our anxiety goes up. This further increases our vigilance and selective attention to scary information. The good news? When we pay attention to other things our anxiety tends to go down.
Reassurance-seeking loops keep us checking. It makes sense that in the face of an event like a mass shooting, a climate disaster, political conflict, or a war, we seek reassurance from each other and our online sources. We are looking to answer the question, “Will things be okay?” The challenge is that most of what we read online sparks more uncertainty and ambiguity. While some of us may retreat or unplug in the face of ambiguity, many of us double down on our search for reassurance. The loop of reassurance-seeking followed by ambiguous data followed by more reassurance-seeking can be a difficult one to break. Indeed, research shows that in the face of ambiguity, anxiety and compulsive reassurance-seeking often follow.
So what can we do?
Bringing awareness to the challenge is an important first step. Our media ecosystem is not built to deliver slow information, rest, or measured coverage. Plus, many of the natural, human, and political crises we face right now do not have quick resolutions. Finally, the more dysregulated and distrustful people are, the more likely they are to interact in harmful ways online. In other words, we shouldn’t wait for a natural “down day” to recharge. We could all benefit from identifying ways to stay engaged and informed without getting completely overwhelmed. Here are some ideas to get started:
There is no one-size-fits-all path.
Each of us is positioned differently to the events unfolding around us. For some, the news delivers reminders of imminent threats to our own or family member’s safety and wellbeing. For others, it may feel more removed. Similarly, hateful or uninformed comments may or may not hit directly. It is important to acknowledge how our identities, histories, and geographies shape our experiences on social media and our ability to cope with it. All of us can normalize the desire to be informed (and connected) but be real about the costs of information seeking to our mental health and wellbeing. We can brainstorm different ways to support each other’s lived realities, stay informed, and take digital breaks.
Most young people get news from social media feeds, not directly from reliable news sources. Misinformation related to political issues, violence, and conflicts is rampant online. Slowing down and making sure that we are consuming and sharing trustworth information is key. Get resources from Common Sense Media or try practicing the SIFT method.
Don’t ignore humor and memes.
It’s not just news that grabs and holds our attention. Humorous memes are a common coping mechanism for kids and adults alike. That said, relying solely on gifs and memes rarely helps us sort fact from fiction and can increase our sense of overwhelm. Most importantly, keep an eye out for content that fuels harmful stereotypes, misinformation, or hate. Kids often use memes as a way to connect with friends and cope with fear and anxiety. Instead of shutting it down entirely, talk about the image and ask open-ended questions about their understanding of the issues and their emotional response to it. If an image they shared may have caused harm to people, talk through ways to repair the damage.
Practice appointment information-seeking.
Notifications are difficult for us to resist during times of relative calm, and nearly impossible during a crisis. Notifications reliably pull our attention away from our goals – whether those include work, friends, or family. Try turning notifications off (but notice the temptation to check our phones more often when we do lest we “miss something.”) Checking platforms on your own time and schedule gives your nervous system a chance to recover. If you or your child are struggling with this, consider designating someone as your “alert person” who will get in touch with you if there is an actual emergency. Designating this person can help you relax.
The importance of “looking in.”
Taking digital breaks isn’t a retreat from the world. It is a commitment to engage with it more thoughtfully. Research over the last ten years has revealed that our brains have two different operating systems: a “looking out” system and a “looking in” system. The challenge for us humans is that we can’t use both attention systems at once. Instead, we toggle back and forth between them. Some examples of when we might use these systems:
Looking out: We use this when we scroll through social media, read a text from a friend, or watch news coverage.
Looking in: We use this when we rest, reflect, remember, feel, or daydream.
Researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang notes that “It’s when we engage our brains’ “looking in” mode that we make meaning out of the mass of experiences and information we encounter when we’re “looking out.” We are just beginning to understand the incredible brain benefits that come from introspection. Yet it is clear that this it is linked to our social, emotional, and ethical lives. For example, one study showed that the more often we reflectively pause when confronted with an emotional story, the better we are at applying the morals of it to another experience. The challenge in a media rich world is that our attention is increasingly pulled outward towards sound bites, snippets, and clicks – especially during times of uncertainty and strain.
So let’s certainly continue to look outward for information and perspectives. But let’s not let it crowd out much-needed time and space to recharge and look in. The challenges we are facing demand both.