To watch or not to watch: Where to draw the line when it comes to news consumption
Photo: AFP

One of the most unmistakable features of the ongoing lockdown is the growing obsession with current affairs. This is rivalled only by our fixation with warped views about current affairs — while the early days of the lockdown were marked by relentless updates, theories and several (misinformed) conspiracies about the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s gaze has now become fixated to the untimely death of a popular actor and the myriad hypotheses surrounding it.

“It used to be that news was a source of information. But during the lockdown, news has also become our source of entertainment and is replacing many of the functions that were once served by social interactions and other developments of our routine lives. With virtually every other aspect of our lives coming to a standstill during the lockdown, the only variable is news and current affairs,” explains Dr Nahid Dave, a psychiatrist at Insight Clinic.

What’s triggering it?

Dr Sagar Mundada, a psychiatrist at Health Spring, says, “During times of extreme certainty about the future, the mind’s natural response is to invest itself in things that are of interest, but not related to you. On regular days, people would walk into movie theatres to leave their troubles behind for a few hours. Being deprived of such outlets during the lockdown has spurred people to seek alternatives. Dabbing in news that is, in some ways, removed from our realities allows us to forget our mundane and stressful present. Any developments that validate our point of view trigger a dopamine surge in our brain. Each victory, therefore, feels more personal.” When the dopamine surge begins to decline, our brains subconsciously seek them out again and our craving for this surge grows stronger with each hit. In the absence of any personal fodder to fuel this surge, we turn to current affairs with renewed interest and vigour, he points out.

It is also a common tendency among human beings to displace responsibility for our own failures on external agents (individuals or circumstances) instead of introspecting about where we might have gone wrong, he adds. “Taking to social media to air views or engaging in lengthy (and often vicious) battles online gives us a feeling of being in control and of ‘winning’, which we often do not experience during our routine home-bound lives,” he says. In the current scenario, many people are caught in a conundrum of wanting to change their realities but being unable to, and being a part of something significant without investing the necessary groundwork. Instead, they turn to social media in hopes that their views earn them popularity and validation. The reward is instantaneous and comes easy.

Impact on mental health

Our obsession with news and reliance on current affairs for our emotional highs can be problematic. “The fact that you have little, if any, control over the developments in the topic of your interest — whether the pandemic, or international tensions or even the investigation about the alleged suicide of an actor — can rob you of your sense of self-worth if things do not work out the way you deem appropriate. This can lead to adjustment issues and even depression,” says Dr Mundada.

He also points out that many individuals are procrastinating important issues in their own lives to, instead, obsess about current affairs. “When your bubble bursts, you will feel overwhelmed and anxious,” he says. It doesn’t help that most people source their news through dubious sources which puts them and their families at risk of misinformation, especially in matters concerning public health.

Dr Dave adds that many individuals struggling with depression are facing the brunt of insensitive and callous over-sharing — from suicide ideation to increased anxiety. Individuals that have experienced tragic suicides in their own families are reliving the trauma over and over. Many are worried if there was something they missed or if it was a suicide at all — this can be very detrimental to their mental well-being.

Drawing the line

To assess if your involvement with current affairs is reaching unhealthy levels, it helps to understand your emotional state when anticipating or reacting to news. “If you find yourself waking up each morning, impatient to learn the latest developments about the case you are following, or anxious about missing out, it may be time to step back,” says Dr Dave.

Paul Dzingarov-Chubb, a healthcare professional, says that despite spending more time following news during the lockdown, he is careful about setting boundaries. “I try to read more news than following news channels, especially those that dramatize topics with sensationalist music and visual effects — I find that these are designed to trigger a more emotional rather than a logical response. Although I have news apps on my devices, I make sure to turn off notifications. I also avoid sharing news pieces that are speculations and opinions, rather than being based on facts, and refuse to be drawn into conversations that are unproductive.”

Experts recommend spending no more than 30 minutes to one hour a day on news. If you don’t know exactly how much time you are devoting to discussing news topics, make a physical note of how you spend each hour of your day. If spending this restricted amount of time makes you feel worried or anxious, Dr Mundada suggests writing down your fears and classifying them into your ‘circle of control’ and ‘circle of concern’. For matters that are under your control, focus on what you can do to improve the situation. Conversely, actively stop and distract yourself when you find yourself obsessing with matters that you are concerned with but are beyond your control. Finally, addiction to news follows the same mechanism as any other addiction – to remedy it, therefore, remove yourself from these platforms at least temporarily, as a form of digital detox.

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