By Nelle Myrica Donaldson
Sometimes he does a facepalm when I offer a blank look in response to a current events reference, but when my husband is not bemoaning my head buried in sand, he categorizes my avoidance of news media as, “saving emotional energy”, and he holds some admiration for it. Rolf Dobelli, Swiss novelist and author of the bestselling book, The Art of Thinking Clearly (2013) calls news media the “bright-coloured candies” of information: easy, addictive, empty calories.
The industry makes little to no effort toward family programming, let alone general suitability for young children; and like actual nutritional choices, our other home habits directly affect our children, too. Their big ears and curious hearts pick up a lot: so, despite my limited level of news consumption, I’ve nonetheless found myself on the spot, trying to offer satisfactory explanations of teen suicide, missile testing, and the patriarchal concept of virginity to my seven-year-old. News media’s target audience is adult. This is one reason I don’t put the TV or radio news on in my home; but I avoid it for me, too.
Political scandals, natural disasters, the tragic deaths of strangers: I am often not the first to know. Acquaintances may squint in disbelief, the bold readout on their creased brows is, “IGNORANT?” (this is etymologically sound: my instinct is one of willful disregard). Yet, I am not naive or unsophisticated; and I am not alone.
Madeleine Bunting of the The Guardian (a British National daily newspaper) has called Dobelli’s ideas “dangerous” — yet, she would, wouldn’t she? She’s in the biz. In his 2010 essay, Avoid News: Toward a Healthy News Diet, Dobelli clarifies his arguments for sidestepping the news headline rabbit hole entirely. Here’s a point summary:
- The news industry systematically abuses a very basic human instinct: when our sympathetic nervous systems are constantly bombarded with compelling stories of danger, tragedy, and other fight-or-flight triggers, we are led to false assumptions and faulty brain circuitry concerning perceived threats.
- It’s toxic. A sympathetic nervous system in a near-constant state of stimulation builds up an abundance of harmful stress hormones (glucocorticoids).
- Most news is irrelevant to most readers. It’s marketed for its entertainment value and, it’s nearly impossible to escape the “really big stories” anyway (e.g. CNN did cover Jacinda Ardern’s return to work after 6 weeks maternity leave, but that’s not where I heard about it). Quit cold turkey, and you might be surprised how little you miss…
- Confirmation bias describes the human need-especially in cultures that emphasize individuality-to match new learning with prior hypotheses. News media feeds us so many unfortunate associations (e.g. racist stereotypes) that “staying informed” effectively leads to increased cognitive errors.
- News interrupts concentration and has an adverse effect on thinking and memory. There is a limit to what our brains can process and retain. See the four-minute video, “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” for a deeper understanding of this argument.
- News wastes time and drains mental capacity, exacting a steep cost on productivity.
- Spending time on news media organizes the brain toward scanning rather than contemplation. The more we learn about neuroplasticity, the more we understand how psychological adaptation happens at the biological level.