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I went back to the news after 13 years. I forgot how bad it is.

man reading news looking anxious with caption "I went back to the news after 13 years. I shouldn't have done."

In 2009, I gave up following the news.

Before that, I’d been a news junky. Every morning would follow a familiar pattern: picking up my phone, checking one app, checking the next, clicking, scrolling, obsessing, cramming the news into my veins.

I reckon I spent over an hour each day doing this practice on loop. That’s just counting daily news sites, without any longer analysis pieces.

I decided I’d have to go cold turkey.

Since then, I’ve barely touched the news. I deleted the apps from my phone, cancelled the couple of subscriptions I had, and stopped clicking around websites on my laptop.

But over the past year, I’ve dipped back in for two major news stories: the Taleban takeover of Afghanistan, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It’s reminded me that I was better off without it.

What’s wrong with the news

Firstly, in the battle with Buzzfeed for your eyeballs, mainstream ‘respectable’ news sites have resorted to clickbait. And clickbait sets you up for some level of disappointment – even if it’s not a downright con, the article tends not to live up to expectations.

Another tactic news websites have gone for is ‘infinite scroll’, like social media sites. This gives you the impression there’s always something more to read. If you don’t get to the bottom, you’ve missed out on something.

There’s also the focus on the negative. Seeing a tonne of bad stuff you can do little about doesn’t tend to put you in the best mood.

If you get your news via social media, what you see is more-or-less tailored to you, rather than an unfiltered or objective view of things.

Mainstream media also seems more ‘basic’ than I remember. More vox pops, shorter words, and less comment. You go away feeling barely more informed.

Finally, there’s the fakeness. Some sites vet stuff before they post it, but plenty don’t. And if you get news from social media, that’s even worse.

What should you do about it?

Drop it completely

My preferred solution to the problem of the news is to opt out. Delete the apps, break the habits, ditch the subscriptions etc. My only interaction with what’s going on in the world is through the lens of long-form content that’s made much later.

But this is unfeasible for plenty of people, and unattractive for others. It can also mean that when you ‘dip back in’ for some reason, you fall hard, as I’ve done recently.

Create an intentional plan

An alternative – and less extreme – way would be to create a clear plan for how you consume the news. This is the kind of strategy suggested in Digital Minimalism. Here are some options:

  • Have a limit for the time you spend on it each day, and be intentional about when you do it i.e. not first thing, but after you’ve completed your first task of the day
  • Set rules, like ‘don’t click on things in the sidebar’, or ‘maximum two articles for each website’, ‘maximum 10 articles per day’ etc.
  • Have a default process that you follow to the end, but don’t go outside of e.g. check headlines and choose one story from each of four outlets
  • Either don’t sign up for any daily emails / podcasts etc., or choose one and do only that
  • Pay for one high-quality service – ideally without adverts
  • If you get your news through social media, reduce the number of people you follow. Better still, unfollow news accounts on social, and get it elsewhere
  • Don’t follow news anywhere there’s an ‘infinite scroll’, or live updates page
  • Read one (physical) newspaper per day, rather than following any rolling news
  • Build consuming the news into a habit with something else, like your daily gym session, or a lunchtime walk
  • Pick a few different sources and read the same story – but just one story – from each one
  • Don’t consume any daily news, but read a weekly publication
  • Save everything you feel like consuming to a ’read later app’, then come back to it with fresh perspective and decide whether you really want to read it

The benefits of consuming the news this way

Depending on how far you take this, you can save a lot of time. If I had continued my news habit as it was in 2009, I’d have ‘wasted’ 4,745 hours. That’s 197 days!1

Avoiding the news can also help with procrastination. Because consuming informational content feels more productive than scrolling Instagram, it’s a tempting way of avoiding work. You can tell yourself it’s important, so you allow yourself to put off the work you know you should be doing.

I suspect the biggest benefit to my ‘no news’ habit has been to my mental health. The few days I’ve gone back to consuming the news, I’ve felt more anxious, and had more ‘weltschmerz’. There’s also a pleasant sense of feeling more in control when you stop trying to keep ‘on top’ of the news.

The evidence for this last point is limited – it’s my personal reflection, and not everyone will have the same emotions when reading the same stories. Reading happier news, if you can find it(!) might well be good for your mental health.

When I tried to find research that bears out my own experience in other people, I found I’m not aware of any large-scale studies showing that watching the news causes anxiety. That said, 56% of Americans in a nationally-representative 2017 survey of 3,440 adults reported that they felt it caused them stress. Particularly when it comes to news of negative events – wars, pandemics, terrorism, crime etc. – it seems uncontroversial.

One might argue that if it were that bad for us, we wouldn’t do it so much. But people do plenty of things that are bad for them, and the news at least has something positive going for it in that you feel more informed afterwards. So I don’t believe it’s out of the question that watching the news has negative mental health impacts.

What the downside is

If you stop reading the news, then occasionally you feel stupid when someone refers to something that everyone else is aware of but you’re not. And you’re less useful in quizzes. But when you explain to people why you don’t consume the news, you seem less stupid. It also gets you in the habit of saying you don’t know things, which is healthy.

More importantly, you might be failing in your civic duty if you’re totally cut off from the news. If you can’t discuss politics, social issues, or international affairs because of a lack of basic knowledge, you can’t properly take part in important discussions, or make an informed decision in elections. You might miss out on opportunities to do good, ways to improve your life, or new business ideas.

Thankfully, you can reduce this if you read some news-related articles. I keep an eye on what’s going on through the twice-weekly newsletter I get from Pocket. If there’s anything really ground-breaking going on, you’ll likely hear about it through family and friends.

Cutting yourself off from the news can also feel unpleasant for a while. Consuming the news feels semi-productive in a way that bingeing Netflix obviously isn’t. But if you reflect on the benefits, you’ll probably get over it.

So what should you do?

The evidence for the news making you less happy is weak, but nor is it clear that spending a lot of time on it improves your life. Unless your job depends on being absolutely up-to-date in a particular industry, reading a few news stories in slower time probably leaves you better off. Either way, it’s worth coming up with a plan to maximise what you get from the news in the shortest time possible.

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Footnotes

  1. Please take that statistic with a pinch of salt. Obviously not all of the time would count as ‘wasted’, and I can’t say for sure that I used all of the time significantly better.