Twitter is bad for your mental health. Illustration: Kate Hazell

Want to have faith in humanity? Delete the news apps from your phone

Cathy Rentzenbrink on the dangers of obsessing over the news
August 20, 2018

When I was growing up I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. He was a bus driver and she was a typist. They thought it part of their civic duty to be informed so every night they watched the evening news. It always ended with a light-hearted “and finally,” before they turned off the television and went to bed.

That last bit is hard to do in the modern world. In an era of multiple news channels and social media how do we ever find an off switch? And how do we re-create our own “and finally” that makes us feel a little better about the world before we go to sleep?

A friend of mine is cross that he doesn’t fall asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow. He spends his evening watching news programmes on the bounce and scrolling through Twitter and emails on his phone.

When he turns in for the night, he puts the phone on his bedside table. He can’t turn it off because he uses it as an alarm clock. After a few minutes of trying to fall asleep he gets bored and picks the phone up again for another round of checking. Why is he surprised that this is not a recipe for a good night’s sleep?

The news is depressing

What effect does this hyper-connectivity have on us? There used to be an idea that anyone who said that the news was depressing didn’t know what depression was. I no longer think this is true. When I look back at turbulent times in my own life I now see the over consumption of news—the trial of Fred and Rosemary West, 9/11, the nuclear floods in Japan—played a role in my struggle.

Perhaps this is because to stay sane I have to maintain a faith in humanity, which is difficult to do when watching news channels compete with each other in the aftermath of a global disaster.

It’s also to do with the way news plays with our perspective on the world. Our logical mind knows that we are being shown the extraordinary, but at a more primal level it is hard not to start seeing risk everywhere, which means it is hard not to succumb to the belief that the world is a dangerous and cruel place.

All this is amplified by social media. I never again want to find out something horrible has happened because I’m seeing individual people tweet things like, “Shit, no” or little heartbreak emojis and pictures of teardrops next to national flags.

And there is something especially difficult to process about the way social media layers a photo of a dead child on a beach in between a picture of someone’s cocktail and a plea from an author that you buy his book because it’s his birthday.

Brexit over breakfast

The continual consumption of news certainly has the power to render depressed those, like me, who are susceptible to depression and it might not do anyone else any favours either.

My Dutch husband used to read the latest on Brexit on his phone as he stirred the porridge. Since he deleted all his news apps, the Brexit situation has not improved but his ability to be a pleasant breakfast companion has. It is such an easy trap to fall into, that we are so aghast by the behaviour of our rulers, that we don’t pay attention to the actual real people and things in our lives.

My grandparents thought informing themselves on the issues of the day was crucial to being a good citizen but I just don’t trust the makers of news in the way that they did. Am I fulfilling my civic duty or am I exposing myself to yet more manipulation where everything is clickbait and I am the stupid fish who will be so distressed by being able to livestream humanity at its worst that I will then have to drink or eat or buy stuff in an attempt to make myself feel better.

Not consuming news is good for my mental health, but probably living in a nunnery would be too. I don’t want to live apart from the world so my current strategy is to try to recreate a pre-internet way of interacting with events. No news before breakfast and none after 7pm gives enough of a gap for me. Then I turn everything off and talk to a human or read a book. I’m saner as a result of it and I don’t think the world suffers from my nightly inattention.

In the future, we will all need to find our own off switch.