Our Ability to Process Information Is Reaching a Critical Limit
The result feels like a mental DDoS attack
BuzzFeed once called 2016 “Actually The Worst Year.” It didn’t hold the record for long. In six short months, 2020 has already delivered Australian wildfires, election controversies, the coronavirus pandemic, a massive increase to the surveillance state, the murder of yet more Black people at the hands of police, violent resistance to national protests in support of Black Lives Matter, and the list goes on.
It’s a lot. And our ability to process it all may be reaching a critical limit.
A growing body of research highlights the strain on our ability to read, understand, process, and take action on the flood of news with which we’re confronted. Some of the biggest events in 2020 have demanded more of our time, more direct action, and have been more emotionally taxing than we’re used to. The result feels like a mental DDoS attack that drags down our mental health, allows misinformation to thrive, and even makes the job of delivering news more difficult.
As information becomes more accessible, news cycles often struggle to keep one topic in focus for long. A political scandal on Monday that would have rocked the nation for weeks in decades past might be out of the news cycle by Tuesday now. This can sometimes be by design, as politicians learn that one of the best ways to combat breaking news is with more breaking news. It’s a strategy that former Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon referred to as “flooding the zone with shit.”
As a result, news readers become overwhelmed. According to a 2019 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 35% of respondents in the U.K., and 41% in the U.S., actively avoided the news. While news consumption briefly jumped after the pandemic hit, the Institute found a “significant increase” in news avoidance between April and May, with 59% of respondents saying they avoid the news at least “sometimes.”
In these surveys, the primary reason for avoiding the news is relatable: It stresses readers out. Research by professor of psychology Graham Davey at the University of Sussex has shown that constant exposure to the news can have a powerful negative effect on the viewer’s mood. “Our research has shown that negatively valenced news conveys that negativity to the consumer and makes them feel more anxious, stressed, or even depressed, and this negativity then feeds into their own personal worries and concerns which makes people worry for longer and often worry catastrophically,” Davey told OneZero.
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Too much stressful news can have a negative impact on your mental health. Sites like Twitter — which can be stressful on a good day — become overwhelming with a constant flood of new things to be upset or dismayed about. “Negative news that conveys trauma in some way can have even greater effects on mental health by triggering symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder,” Davey explains. “Especially if the stories convey violence and trauma in a vivid and visual way.”
In the early days of the pandemic, it was harder to avoid the news: all of it was immediately relevant to your life. But learning necessary information from the news can accelerate news exhaustion.
“I’m sure that at a personal level many people had become very stressed by the continuing negative news about coronavirus,” Davey said. “Especially in the early days of lockdown when it was unclear when things would begin to improve. I suspect many people deliberately stopped watching TV news or reading newspapers because of this, and being in lockdown made it much easier to avoid news generally.”
Even among those who continue to read the news, there are only so many hours in the day to process it all. It takes time to find, read, process, and share stories — time that’s usually snuck in on work breaks, while using the bathroom, or before bed. The more stories there are to read, the harder it is to process any of them.
Give someone enough time to process what they’re reading, and they’re more likely to believe the truth… But time is an increasingly rare commodity.
While it’s possible to read more than one news article in a day, research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology shows that the less time a person has to spend comprehending a story, the less likely they are to be skeptical of a false story. Further study by researchers at Macquarie University and MIT suggested this effect was more likely to account for people believing fake news than political bias.
In other words, give someone enough time to process what they’re reading, and they’re more likely to believe the truth, even if it goes against their political beliefs. But time is an increasingly rare commodity, and it affects more than just consumers of news. As Steven Sloman, PhD, professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University, explained to NPR in 2018, “We just don’t have time to separate the facts from the falsities. Even fact-checkers don’t have time.”
Layoffs and traffic demands have stressed newsrooms for years, but the Covid crisis only exacerbated the problem. Fewer reporters are available to cover more stories for an audience that’s increasingly exhausted by the news they can’t ignore. Eventually, something has to give.
Like most problems caused by the pandemic, instead of one big dramatic breaking point, there are a lot of smaller stress fractures. Important stories — like expanded surveillance programs — that might have been major news cycles under usual circumstances can go overlooked. Conspiracy theories spread a bit faster than usual. People get more stressed than usual.
Over the short term, some of these stressors relieve themselves. During the initial phases of the pandemic, distributing information about how to limit the spread of the virus was crucial, but the flood of necessary updates abates over time. While protests continue, most curfews get lifted, allowing a sense of equilibrium. Even if the story goes on, an individual’s ability to tag out for a short time increases. Beyond that, however, adapting to a flood of news might require a social change in news consumption habits.