Social Media, The News, and Your Mood

Social media and the news can have a significant effect on your mood. Without noticing, you can get trapped in a habit of checking feeds that make you feel worse, constantly. I've noticed this happening to myself, and I see it happening to my friends.

I want to make it clear - distancing yourself from the news and social media is perfectly fine, and may help to improve your mood and mental wellbeing. There's no obligation to stay "up to date", and you should put your own wellbeing first anyway.

Last week, I took a peek at my twitter timeline, and saw a tweet from a friend that went something like: "I wake up in the morning feeling refreshed, then check twitter/the news, then feel like dying. haha!". Jokes about self-harm aside, this is a common trend that I see amongst my friends, acquaintances and coworkers, and after mulling over some thoughts in my head for the last week i've coalesced a few ideas.

Facebook and other social media is optimised for attention, not for happiness

Social networking companies employ lots of smart people to track, and optimise for, our attention. The more time we spend staring at their app or website, the more money they can make from us by selling our attention and data to advertisers. Your happiness is not the goal, for these companies - your attention is.

The way we use social media is changing, as well. Facebook has become a highlight reel, consisting almost entirely of positive posts. Instagram is even worse - a recent survey found that it rated as the worst social media platform when it comes to young people's mental health.

We're also more afraid to post on social media - up to 71% of facebook users engage in self-censorship, according to a 2013 study. We self-censor for a variety of reasons, but with employers checking social media as part of the screening process, what you post can affect your career prospects as well as your social circles. This creates an alternative reality on Facebook, where everyone's lives are full of happiness and beautiful photos. I rarely see people post sad news on facebook any more - they're much more likely to announce it privately.

News is designed to keep you in a state of fear

News is designed to optimise for your attention, similarly to social media. In particular, corporate media operates on the principle that more people will tune in if they fear some imminent disaster. Many stories in the news offer a depressing outlook, particularly with politics.

As Rolf Dobelli points out in his 2012 essay, "Once you get into the habit of checking the news, you are driven to check it even more often. Your attention is set on fast-breaking events, so you hunger for more data about them. This has to do with a process called long-term potentiation (LTP) and the reward circuits in your brain.". Dobelli's essay is quite comprehensive and eye-opening, and I recommend setting aside the time to read it in its entirety - something that I have not yet done.

Especially since the last US presidential election, I've seen some of my left-leaning friends become more and more frustrated with current political news. To my friends, I ask you - what good does it do to stay informed, if being informed makes you feel worse, without providing you with useful, actionable information?

If the news makes you feel powerless, why continue to consume it? Keep notes of big political stories so you can be informed at the next election, and make charitable donations to disasters, but don't spend every day reading about depressing stories of corrupt politicians or economic trends.

Your mental health is more important than staying "informed", and the benefits of being "informed" are questionable at best. Anecdotally, I have noticed, amongst my friends, that people who follow the daily news cycle have more issues with their mental well-being, compared to those who only periodically read or watch the news.

What can you do?

Take a break from social media and internet news, for a few days, and see if it improves your mood. Think about how much you really miss it, and what, in particular, you're missing.

Maybe you'll want to realign the way you use social media - keep a subset of your friends in one app (if possible - it's hard!) and contact them regularly, rather than spreading across multiple networks and apps. There's also this thing called "email" that is supposedly good for communicating on the internet, but people will look at you funny if you ask for their email address.

For news, you could try reading one news site rather than looking at aggregators. For example, I moved to reading the ABC news website a few times a week instead of checking google news and reddit's news subreddits multiple times a day. I don't see every single headline any more, but I still get to find out what's important - and if it's important enough, enough people will be talking about it that i'll find out anyway.

There's an organisation - Time Well Spent - that is attempting to address the problems we are facing with our attention, and looking for ways to move forward. I recommend watching the TED talk that their founder, Tristan Harris, gave a while ago. Tristan can explain a lot of the concepts i've mentioned far more eloquently, and he has experience seeing the technologies being used to control our attention from his time working at Google.

Above all, take note of your browsing and smartphone app habits, and see if you're spending time aimlessly doing the same things again and again. If you are, consider if you're really happy doing that - and if you're not happy, then try to make the change in your habits to move away from that. It's not easy, I know - I'm in the process of adjusting my attention habits as well. Feel free to reach out and talk about it.