Asking for a Friend: I Can’t Look Away from the News Feed

Dear Olive, 

I have become obsessed with the news. I was addicted to the scroll before, but with this new administration, my addiction has been taken to a whole new level. With my eyes glued to the screen (screens), it is hard to be present in reality. I can no longer think about anything other than what new fresh evil is about to take place. How do I find balance? Social media felt unhealthy even in the best of times, but now I feel lost without it. Any advice?

-Stuck Scrolling

Dear Stuck,

First things first: I’m with you. I’d be ashamed to admit that I’ve spent the last two days pretending to work while scrolling through my news feed, if the addictive appeal of plugging in weren’t drawing hordes of us in, like misguided moths to a particularly magnetic porch light. Surveys say nearly a third of American workers have been less productive since November, and I’d bet the pervasive stream of politics on Facebook and all the animal pictures we’re re-posting to feel better are jostling for first place in the attention busting blame game. A lot of terrible things are happening to immigrants, Muslims, trans* people, women — just to pick the most recently targeted. Empathy, in theory a renewable resource, is being depleted as fast as we can recharge, and sometimes faster. It feels like knowing the minutiae of every new development might help us guard against the next one — but the ceaseless updates, answers, and arguments that draw us in also fracture our attention so thoroughly that there’s none available to do anything but reel. Still, our dopamine receptors say news feels good, even when it’s bad. Returning to that reliable hit in our palms is as reasonable a response as anything else.

But, as you’ve already discovered, it loses its potency about as quickly as a stick of Doublemint — and has approximately the same nutritional value. The news feed is designed to be fleeting, not filling. Sometimes meaning and satisfaction emerge out of the stream, but seeking substance there is a losing gambit — which, of course, doesn’t stop us from trying. The available solution may be shallow, but the need is deep.

Figuring out just what that need is is the first step to fulfilling it for real, not just for a minute. What is it you’re looking for when you hit the button that’s going to deliver the newest splash of information, refreshed from just five minutes ago? Community? Information? Answers? Are you trying to know everything? To feel better? To forget? To fight? The steady stream of news bits and commentary offers a little of all of that, but it’s not the premier source for anything besides frustration at how quickly the world moves.

But simply trying to refrain from turning to a trusted source of distraction is bound to end in failure. Removing a solution, even a haphazard one, from an unmet need doesn’t really help solve it.

What’s worked for me instead is forcing out the flimsy stopgaps with more effective solutions. It’s slower, certainly, and not really easier than dropping nasty habits outright — or trying to — but it’s real in a way the news feed, for all its pervasiveness, isn’t. The only thing that put a stop to my scrolling today, for example, was getting in my car, driving out of cell phone service range, and sliding spectacularly down a mountain for my first time on snowshoes. After that, I staked out a coffee shop table with a friend and wrote this column. My attention, lately scattered like a sandbox after a strong wind, was finally swept back into place by a few hours in the sunshine and snow.

What happened between the last few days of mindless scrolling and today’s stretches of deep work and play was that I remembered the space between me and the stream I tend to get lost in. It’s thin as a sheet of glass, but it’s important. The news feed fills you up with fragments of other people’s lives, thoughts, projections. What you need to do is fill you up with you. Not by retreating to selfish oblivion — staying tuned in is crucial to holding the powerful accountable — but by separating the signal from the noise. You, a person with ambition, values, skills, connections, compassion, are more powerful if you invest in those and miss a stray update than if you sacrifice your self to the news cycle. You probably know this, but it’s hard to remember sometimes. Turn the porch light off for a minute. Notice: you can see the moon now. You can see the darkness. You can fly in any direction, not just toward your electric end.

What do you do, or what could you, that puts you back together in the shape you want to take? What moves you through space in the direction and form you prefer? What reminds you of everything you care about? What gives you the strength to do something about it?

Maybe it’s making beans in a slow cooker so you can spend your weeknights sated enough to think beyond your kitchen. Maybe it’s reading the news on paper at the library, where you can share your incredulity in person, not in clicks. (Reading thoughtful journalism and art on a surface that doesn’t flicker is a balm for the distracted soul, though even that has a limit before one’s eyes go glassy and one’s brain starts to sputter out.) Maybe it’s showing up to your senator’s office to make your voice heard and calling D.C. every day before breakfast. Maybe it’s reading fiction to refill your well of empathy or making inexpert drawings of oranges in bowls to affirm your indestructible capacity to learn something new.

The social media scroll is a manipulation designed to hold your eyeballs hostage, not to mention your heart, your brain, your sense of self-worth. You know this, even if you’re not yet sure how to resist it. Don’t worry about resisting it, for now; instead, occupy your brain and heart and eyeballs with enough of what you really care about to edge out the rest. Your attention has gotten used to being fractured, and being fractured feels terrible. But “fracture” is just another another word for space. Bones can knit new substance in that space, and so can you. What do you want to fill it with?

Love,
Olive

 

For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.

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