This column is the third in a three-part series exploring the urgent and existential threats to humanity and how we can best respond to them.
The idea of ignoring most news and dramatically cutting back on social media consumption sounds backward, if not horrifying. We’ve become so accustomed to being bombarded by vast amounts of information that we’re not seeing what it does to us — or how beneficial it would be to reduce that constant influx.
We need to reshape our relationship with the information we consume from the news and social media. An emphasis on less breaking news and more thorough, nuanced journalism will reduce stress and allow us to take more efficient steps to address some of the world’s biggest problems.
In part one of this series, I went over how breaking news is inherently skewed toward negative, shocking events and how our overconsumption leads us to overrate some issues and underrate others. In part two, I described how our reactions to these poorly-assessed risks are often decidedly useless or even counterproductive.
Anyone who cares about their own mental health and the problems that the world faces would be left wondering where we go from here. It’s not our fault that these issues exist, and we don’t need to take the weight of the world on our shoulders, but it is our responsibility to do the best we can.
The first issue caused by our overconsumption of media is diminished well-being. We need to reassess the way that we consume information to guard our mental health, while still being informed about events that impact our lives. Importantly, almost none of the news we consume tangibly impacts our lives.
That’s right, I’ll come out and say it in a news publication — although I’ll get back to why you should keep reading The Pitt News later — the news is almost entirely entertainment. Whether or not there are American troops in Afghanistan directly impacts very few American citizens. On-the-ground reporting about a hurricane in Louisiana directly impacts very few Pennsylvanians. The minutiae of Senate rules has no real impact on our day-to-day lives.
I’m calling the news “mostly entertainment” because almost none of the stories we read lead to us changing our behavior. The most I could do about arcane Senate rules is vote for the political party that I think will change them favorably, but how many breaking news articles have you read in your lifetime that caused you to switch from supporting Democratic candidates to supporting Republican candidates, or vice versa?
The idea of “being more informed” as some sort of moral obligation is nonsense. What matters when you consume information is not having more ideas in your head, but what you do with those ideas. If all that’s occurring when reading news stories is stressing yourself out without doing anything different, it’s a useless activity. And if you’re enjoying an article, but not changing your actions, it’s just entertainment.
It’d be worrying if everyone stopped consuming news altogether, but the issue here is news that doesn’t have an impact on your life. The other type, news that does directly change how you would act, is incredibly valuable — it’s just not usually exciting, breaking-news type stories.
We should all take time to find nuanced journalism that informs us in ways that will change our behavior for the better. Long, well-researched magazine articles, in-depth analyses of current issues and entire books can give you an accurate idea of the importance of a topic, and place it in its historical and cultural context.
Paradoxically, these types of sources will actually make you more informed about current events than anyone who is frantically consuming just the current headlines. Knowing the wider context surrounding an event allows you to place it in historical perspective. From that vantage point, you can more objectively see how worrying something is and how it could change your individual behavior.
We need to actively search out high-quality journalism on issues that actually impact us. Local news outlets — like The Pitt News — and thoughtful experts require more effort to find and support, but it’s worth it. At the same time, we need to ruthlessly cut out any news that doesn’t impact us and just stresses us out.
That means no more doomscrolling, no more browsing headlines whenever you have a free moment and a complete shift in most people’s approach to social media. Some studies have shown that social media can be beneficial to your health, but you need to be using it in the right way. Curate your feed and your browsing habits so that instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media, you’re intentionally engaging with information and staying connected with friends.
And as much as we can take action to have an impact on these issues, make sure that you’re getting the most bang for your buck. You can get involved in local politics — even if that just means being informed and voting — and have an outsized impact on important elections that directly impact your life. If you have the means to make donations, there are organizations that make sure your money does as much good as possible.
Effective Altruism is an organization spawned from a social movement that advocates for, well, being as effective as possible in your altruism. They — and other organizations like them — have plenty of resources to make sure that your donations actually relieve suffering and have a direct impact on the world, rather than being used to pay a CEO an outsized salary.
On a personal level, instead of getting into fights on Twitter that ruin the rest of your day, you could be a positive influence on those around you. Getting off of Twitter may not make you perfect, but a little less stress and a little less panic about the world can contribute to being a better friend, partner or parent.
These solutions I’m offering are no panacea, but that’s because there is no such thing as a perfect solution. It may not be easy to change the way you consume information, or to shift your mindset around the sorts of actions that will make the world a slightly better place, but it’s worth it.
It’s worth it to be a little better informed, a little less stressed and to know that your actions are more effectively solving large problems, to the extent that you can. And since that extent is not that much, you don’t need to panic about the world’s problems — you’re doing the best you can.
We all too often focus on negative outcomes. It’s so easy to imagine things getting worse — for ourselves and the world. But ask yourself how much things could get better if you took control of how you consumed information, and took the best, most meaningful actions in response.
Of the million small steps needed to solve the world’s biggest problems, more effectively consuming and reacting to the news and social media is a small but important beginning. A little less stress and a little more clarity could go a long way toward addressing the most important problems we face individually and worldwide.
Lucas DiBlasi writes primarily about politics, music and crises. Feel free to email him at [email protected].