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…