My first memory of online news was the ‘what’s new’ section of Compuserve. I had no idea how to operate the site and I, like many others I imagine, spent little time on online journalism. Rather, morning news and newspapers were not only part of my daily routine, but my main source of information growing up.
The world of online journalism is vastly different today. Growing rates of global internet access have made countless sources of information readily available. Not least because there are a plethora of online websites and blogs dedicated to news, but also they capture breaking news so quickly.
The world’s new, digital, and highly competitive media environment has created ways to lure in readers. Many sites highlight breaking or emerging stories with live updates, big red fonts to attract a reader’s eye, and flashing images. Newspapers seem glacial in comparison.
They are also more accessible than traditional forms of media, with easy to navigate sites and clear, succinct language. It is often easier and quicker to pick up your phone for the headlines than to turn the telly on, particularly with push notifications. This has meant that we are always switched on to what is happening around us and for many, it eventually consumes part of your life.
This started to become an issue for me. The nature of my work means that I am often reacting to what has happened in the news that day. This has meant checking online news is the first thing I do when I get up and is the last thing I do before I return to slumber. But like many, I often worry about things I see in the news and these last few years have produced worrying storylines, from rising hate crime to climate catastrophes.
These anxious feelings are exacerbated by the constant reminders that you can not always trust the newspapers, websites, and news shows you prefer. The feeling is an increasingly common sentiment across the world, as many now view news outlets negatively.
This is why I decided to try, what Silicon Valley techies call, a ‘dopamine fast.’ By reducing the brain’s feel-good chemical known as dopamine by limiting your use to a number of activities, including technology, you can encourage the brain to be more effective and appreciate simple things more easily.
For me, this would mean spending a few weeks suppressing the urge to check the latest news, with a hope to start worrying less. There were some unforeseen side effects too.
I was more productive
When I arrive at work, I often check the news first thing. I will probably check the news once an hour thereafter, with taking some time to really focus on longer articles or keeping the Guardian’s breaking news stories open. It’s a wonder how I did any work at all.
During the last three weeks, although there were a few times where my fingers hit the keyboard automatically, firing up the news, I tried to limit myself by reading an old Economist or Bloomberg at lunch.
This initially meant that I found myself more effective in the morning, when I tend to work best anyway. Although the afternoon slump was still too unavoidable, I still spent less time with a wandering mind and more time focused on the task at hand.
I had more time to read newspapers and political magazines
People like people who are in the know. This is one of the reasons why people check the news so frequently – to understand what is happening in politics today, to sound informed in social circles, and to impress your colleagues with opinions.
However, interesting opinions are not formed from reading headlines, but rather, taking time to read longer articles that challenge the beliefs you already hold, or tell you about a story you would not otherwise have read.
What’s more, it is quite enjoyable to take the time to read a newspaper and magazine. Up until the fast, I found myself skipping large chunks of newspapers, as I had already read the story online the day before, despite additional detail.
I also had not realised quite how much time I was spending online, which meant that on the weekends I felt overwhelmed with free time to enjoy reading – books as well. The experiment allowed me to feel more invested in what I was reading and ultimately, reading more as a result.
I did not worry less.
My initial hope in the dopamine fast was that I would worry less. Disappointingly, this was not the case. Although I spent less time worrying about the world outside of my bubble, I found myself worrying about everything from the boiler to the dentist. Although the experiment did not mean I worried any less, I did feel that I had more time to spend time doing things I enjoy.
If like me, you are a worrier by nature, you will always find things to worry about. However, it is not uncommon to find people expressing how they feel technology induces stress and anxiety, and how ultimately, being always switched on allows one to feel exhausted.
The expansion of online journalism and news outlets may seem unstoppable. While this disruption has presented many benefits, such as connecting people into a global audience who were otherwise unconnected, it has become more addictive and reactive. But this does not mean that you always need to keep up to date, nor keep feeding the monster.