News Addiction

Reading the news (or watching it) and keeping up to date with current events is often seen as a smart thing to do. It definitely has its advantages. Though unless you genuinely need it, does it have much value?

A few months ago, I stopped checking the news regularly. Before, I'd often be checking BBC News multiple times a day, using up around 20+ minutes each day. It felt good to know what was going on in the world, especially with recent developments in tech. Though at some point, I realised that reading the news is impacting me negatively overall.

Here's a non-exhaustive list of reasons why the reading/watching the news frequently is not a great thing to do:

  • Negativity. Most of the articles are about things going wrong, bad things that are happening, or just more things to worry about. Few reports are positive and happy, mainly because most people want to hear about the negative stuff and complain about everything. This negative bias doesn't put your mind in good spirits. If you read it in the morning, then you may well end up feeling worse or just more negative in general throughout the day.
  • Skewed perception. Many things get underreported, and many topics are overrepresented. You'll hear a lot about murders and relatively little about cardiovascular disease, even though people are significantly more likely to die from CVD than murder.
  • Lack of depth. Most news articles are quite shallow, they often only touch on topics without going into much depth, so you'll often never see the whole picture, or understand why something is happening. It's like the opposite of books.
  • Irrelevancy. News articles are often irrelevant within a few weeks, and rarely are they relevant in a few years. Reading timeless content that will be relevant in the next 1, 5 or 50 years would give you much more insight into how the world works. Stuff on the news typically ends up being trivia for pub quizzes.
  • Redundancy. A lot of articles recycle content from previous articles written on the same topic. Often, any small update on a big story gets a few paragraphs of new content, then a bunch of paragraphs recycled from the last article.
  • It clutters your mind. The news puts loads of thoughts into your head, making you more distracted throughout the day. It stresses your mind unnecessarily, causing you to fill up your brain with useless information.
  • Information is rarely actionable. How often do you read a news article and then take any action on it? I'm reasonably sure you'll be taking action on less than 5% of articles you read. Most of the time, the things reported on are entirely out of your control, and end up being a boring conversation topic.
  • It's a huge time sink. If you spend 15 mins reading/watching the news each day, then that's about 91 hours each year, over two 40-hour work weeks! Plus the time you spend idly thinking about topics in the news rather than things that are meaningful in your life. If you check the news multiple times per day, it distracts you from whatever you were doing before and takes time to return to doing something productive or meaningful.
  • It can often be incorrect. Accusations and unconfirmed reports often saturate the news. Having news be false can have many harmful consequences in real life, and I'd rather be less affected by any potentially inaccurate articles. Often the journalists writing articles misinterpret things that occur or scientific papers that are published. They don't know about how to look out for fake science and often fall prey to many biases, such as information bias, selection bias, regression to the mean, confounding, etc. You need statisticians and scientists to interpret data and results correctly, but journalists can often misreport data in such a way to further their political agenda. The readers of the articles that are published shouldn't need to be responsible for checking the validity of data, the sources, and the conclusions.

If you're a politician or journalist, reading the news is probably essential to your way of life, so abstaining from it may be very harmful. You may need to keep up with advancement in your field actively, so reading news specific to your domain is probably a productive thing to do. However, most people don't need to read the main headlines that are for everyone. I thought as a programmer that I needed to check the tech news regularly, but I don't feel like most of that's even useful anyway. I don't need to hear about governments restricting Huawei's products or Zuckerberg responding to media criticism. Most of it is just useless fluff.

If something significant does come up in the news that is relevant to me, I rely on other people mentioning it to me — then I know it might be of interest to me. Though this rarely happens, because rarely is anything in the news super relevant to my life without me knowing about it from somewhere else. I'll still check the headlines occasionally (about once every two to three weeks currently) to ensure I'm not entirely out of the loop, though I hope to check it even less in the future.

If you've decided that you want to cut down on your consumption of news, then I'd recommend going a few days without checking it. It will be difficult to resist the urge to check it; you will probably want to remove news apps from your phone's home screen and your web browser's bookmarks. Then, try and go for a longer period. Try and commit to 14 or 30 days of not checking the news, and see how you feel. You should be able to adjust to unplugging yourself from the constant stream of information, which should give you greater mental clarity, and you may even feel more optimistic.

Ending bad habits can be difficult, especially if they are addictions. If you do end up checking the news, realise what you're doing and then stop. Don't berate yourself for your slip-up; forgive yourself and move on.

I've enjoyed living with as little news as possible. As part of writing this article, I had to read the news myself to come up with some of the ideas listed in the article - and it wasn't enjoyable. It reminded me how irrelevant all of it is, and how I found nothing of importance to my own life. I like to think that avoiding news is an excellent method of detoxing your mind to make it sharper. I don't have to deal with the mental clutter of having the never-ending stream of information with an expiration date, and I can live each day being more present and focussed on my own life as a result.