5 Tips for Going on a News-Free Diet
Processed foods. Soda. Sugar. Alcohol. Cigarettes. Sedentary behavior. Insufficient sleep. We're all familiar with this list of unhealthy behaviors and many of us are either actively working towards minimizing these things or judging ourselves for being unable to. And while I'm not a fan of focusing only on what you want less of in your life, it's still good to be aware of the things that are most likely to harm you. For this reason, I want to add a less obvious item to this list that I believe is equally as damaging to our well-being: News Intake.
First, let's get a sense of why watching too much news is a problem. To start with, Americans are consuming an unreasonable amount of information in general. One study in 2011 found that the average American consumed the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of information each day. As of 2020, the average American spends more than half of their waking hours consuming various forms of media. So, to start with, we have a serious information overconsumption problem. And I'd argue that we're consuming too much of one particularly harmful form of information: Televised News.
Looking specifically at news, a report released in October of 2020 stated that over the course of the year, adults in the US watched up to 48% more news than in past years (and numbers for recent years were already at unprecedented levels). TV news packs a far more powerful and damaging punch than other types of information. It takes only 14 minutes of news watching to significantly increase your levels of anxiety, worry, and depression. And in comparison to reading written news, televised news is particularly effective at altering how you actually perceive the information you're consuming. Finally, as anyone who watches a significant amount of news knows, TV news is addicting. The more you watch, the more you feel you need to watch it. Bottom line, if information were food, then modern TV news is junk food.
We have a fairly good understanding of why people get hooked on junk food. It's sweet, it's salty, it lights up the pleasure centers in the brain, it's cheap and convenient, and thanks to cutting edge food science, it is incredibly addictive. In many ways, televised news checks all of the same boxes. It's riddled with colorful flashing banners, scrolling text, and novel information meant to pique your interest and keep you coming back for more. It stimulates your emotional taste buds and elicits powerful emotional experiences like anger, confusion, sadness, anticipation, helplessness, and worry. It's made to feel undeniably relevant to YOU and your personal interests so that it becomes nearly impossible to turn away from it for fear that you might miss a life-altering piece of information. In this way it creates a sort of paranoid FOMO... If something terrible or infuriating happens every time you watch it, there's a pretty good guarantee that if you don't watch it, you're going to miss something terrible and infuriating. And if you miss something, you'll be unprepared and vulnerable.
So just like with junk food, the news taps into our emotions and physiology in order to hook us. But where the food industry has cutting edge food science and relentless advertising to help get you hooked, the news has it's own secret weapon that is free of cost: widespread social support. In the general population, news watching is thought of as a mandatory part of every well-informed person's information diet. It's how you stay in the loop, how you know what's going on in the world outside of your personal bubble. More importantly, it is part of your duty as a responsible citizen. Not watching the news is often thought of as careless and irresponsible, similar to not voting. In the end if you want to reduce or eliminate your news watching, not only will it be difficult all on its own, but you'll also have to endure the social guilt trip that goes with it.
So how do we get out of this trap? Well with any type of meaningful behavior change, the best place to start off is by establishing the "why." If you watch a significant amount of TV news, take some time to consider the costs of that news watching. How many hours per day do you end up spending watching it? How many hours per day do you end up thinking and talking (or screaming) about what you saw on the news? What is your mood like following a session of news watching? Lastly, what function does it actually serve in your life? Besides the vague purpose of "staying informed," does news-watching actually make your life better in any significant way? Does it make you a better friend or family member? Does it bring you closer to living the life that you want to live? Does it, by chance, bring you further away? In asking these questions, you might notice something interesting. While the intention behind news watching is to stay connected with the world in order to more effectively engage in life, the actual result of excessive news watching is often the exact opposite: Being disconnected and disengaged with the things that matter most to you.
So now let's talk about the "how" part of cutting down on news-watching. With all the similarities between TV news and junk food, it seems best to take a similar approach:
1. Harm reduction vs. abstinence
Because of the addictive qualities of TV news, attempting to quit cold turkey is rarely successful. A more effective approach is to work towards what is called "harm reduction": emphasizing reduction and safer options over 100% abstinence. If you were cutting down on junk food, this might be done by limiting the portion sizes or frequency, or substituting foods that are similarly pleasurable but with less harmful effects. News-watching could be approached in exactly the same way. When my clients decide it's time to cut down their news consumption, we'll often start by shaving off just 15-30 minutes of news-watching per day. Sometimes we'll set up designated news-watching times across the day, and refrain from watching outside of those times.
2. Go back to the basics
Most of us have grown up and existed in a world where nationally televised, round-the-clock news is the norm, but of course, this wasn't only the case. There was a time when written news was the only source of current events. And before that, there was a time where news spread mainly through word of mouth. Similar to taking the approach of a Paleo or a whole food diet where you might phase out junk food by substituting with real, actual foods, one could work on consuming less emotionally stimulating forms of news. So rather than nationally televised news, you could limit yourself to locally televised news. Even better, you could go with strictly written news. The closer you can get to an old fashioned newspaper, the less addicting and mind-altering the news is going to be. Think fast food French fries vs. a baked potato.
3. Swap out news-watching with more meaningful behaviors
One of the most significant costs of excessive news-watching is the loss of connection and time with others. So what better way to cut down on news-watching than to swap that time out for meaningful activities with the ones you love? Alternatively, you could swap out news-watching for an activity that works directly against the effects of the news. With my clients we'll often use some of the time they typically spend watching the news to instead practice mindfulness. Other examples could be exercising, walking, getting out into nature, reading non-news related material, or interacting directly with your community in some way rather than learning about them through the lens of TV news.
4. Try a full news detox
If you are successful in cutting down your news intake to a level that works better for you psychologically, you might find yourself wanting to experiment with a news detox. This is kind of like making the full transition away from processed junk food and towards eating real, healthy foods. Taking time off from the news is a great way to gain some perspective on exactly how much news you really do or do not need in your life. It allows you to get a good read on what you feel like when you are fully news-free (spoiler alert: It feels GREAT). Lastly, you'll find that refraining from watching the news really doesn't leave you as uninformed and in the dark as you might have thought. In my own personal experience, I've found that when I cut the news out, the most important news still finds its way to me. As with everything else, it's good to start small here. Take a single day off and see how it goes. Or try an entire weekend if you're feeling ambitious.
4. Track changes
Last but not least, take time to actually observe and track the psychological effects of limiting the news. Take some notes on your mood, anger, and level of social connection on news-watching days vs. non-news watching days. Ask others around you if they notice any differences on days when you're not watching. See if you're chronic case of Resting News Face* (beat red, veins bulging, eyes wide open and wild-eyed) goes away. Judging by the results of past clients of mine, the results here can be quite impressive.
*Figure 1. Resting News Face
5. Don't get sucked into the guilt trip
As others become aware of your radical non-news-watching behavior, you might catch some flak for it. This one's easy: Who cares? You don't need to please the news addicts of the world, you're busy doing what actually works for your life. So just let people know, "Sorry, I'm not playing the news game right now... just not into it." And if you want to get under their skin a little bit, you can ask them "But why would I watch the news when you can watch it for me?"
As you go about trying any of these strategies, you're likely to run into the same challenges as when cutting out junk food. You're probably going to feel a sort of withdrawal, some physical and psychological discomfort, strong urges to run back to it. You'll notice your mind whispering things to you about what you might be missing and how it wouldn't hurt to just turn it on for a quick minute to see what's happening. Again, start small. From there, do your best to stick with it, and give it time. At first you might not be able to trust your gut, but after some time away you'll become more aware of when the addiction is talking vs when you really truly need to turn the news on. And most importantly, pause once in a while and soak up the quiet, peaceful moments in your news-free / low-news life, and you'll remember exactly why you decided to cut down in the first place.