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How to Deal with News Overload

These days, breaking news threatens to break all of us. No matter your political leanings, the volume (in terms of both quantity and loudness) of news these days is unprecedented. How to deal? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains what news overload is doing to us and how to take control.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
February 24, 2017
Episode #143

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I’m giving away my non-millennial age here, but remember when the internet was new and experts crowed about how much less time we’d spend searching out information and how much more time we’d spend, say, relaxing at the beach with our families? Easy access to news and information was supposed to save our time and sanity. Turns out … not so much.

Instead, the internet, a 24-hour news cycle, smartphones, and an unprecedented political climate are all conspiring to make us feel lousy. This week, regardless of your political leanings, we’ll break down four problems with today’s news and three things you can do to save your sanity.

Problem #1: Sheer volume. First, the quantity of news is utterly massive. According to Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conferences and author of Information Anxiety, just one New York Times is packed with more information than the average nineteenth-century individual encountered in a lifetime.

These days, we scroll through the news before we get out of bed, absorb the world through the radio during breakfast, get pinged with updates and alerts all day long, and then tune into the late-night shows to try to muster a laugh about it all. It’s exhausting. The news is even broadcast in airplanes—we can’t escape, even at the equivalent altitude of Mt. Everest.

Finally, the news doesn’t come at us only from mainstream news organizations. These days, for better or worse, anyone can be a reporter. We get news from so many sources: niche websites, blogs, or even140 characters at a time. We’re left to filter the mass for ourselves, which again, is exhausting.

Problem #2: Divided attention. The second problem is how we consume the news. How often do you sit down to watch a news show or read the paper without simultaneously doing something else? If you’re like me, not often. Usually, we’re multitasking: scrolling through online news while getting ready for the day, checking Facebook during lunch, or watching the news shows while talking on the phone.

All this multitasking results in divided attention. And our brains are not designed to do this. Writer Linda Stone coined the term continuous partial attention to describe our constantly fractured mental state. 

By contrast, focused attention—the kind of that’s most productive—essentially entails ignoring whatever other stimuli are vying for our attention. But put us in front of a website littered with breaking news alerts and clickbait, and focused attention doesn’t stand a chance.

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