In 2016 a therapist, Dr Steven Stosny, coined the term ‘Headline Stress Disorder’ in response to the increasing number of psychological studies demonstrating the link between the 24/7 news cycle and anxiety, sadness and hopelessness. It seems that the obsession with breaking news is breaking us.
As I write this we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and if you go to any mainstream news outlet, their homepage will have a ‘live’ feed to coronavirus updates. This is now the common response to any breaking news story: set up a live feed for minute-by-minute information. But, while such updates can be helpful, they also have a powerful effect on us.
There is a kind of addictive quality to these updates. FOMO (fear of missing out) is no longer just about the latest consumer product, but in our up-to-date age we consume ever-increasing quantities of news and information. This creates an overload problem: we are just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information coming at us; it is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant.
Then there is the associated anxiety it induces. Sensational news is more interesting than mundane analysis and so bad news and overstated headlines get more clicks. But of course those headlines also have a fear-inducing effect on us and promote anxiety.
One of the tendencies is for many people to fixate on the volume of information as the problem, and there is something to that. But if you think of a house when there’s a deluge of rain, one way of coping with it is to pray for the rain to stop, the other way of coping with it is to stop any flooding by ensuring there are no cracks in your roof.
What if our primary problem is not so much the deluge of information (circumstantially something largely beyond our control) but the cracks in our roof that the deluge is exposing. Or to put it plainly, shouldn’t we focus more on our ability to process the information in a godly and wise way than vainly hoping that the information overload is going to stop anytime soon?
One of the main cracks we have in our metaphorical roof is that we have lost a focus on wisdom and instead prioritise knowledge. Having the latest information is prized more than knowing what to do with it. By contrast, in Scripture, wisdom gives us ‘insight … wise dealing, in righteousness, justice and equity … prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth … [and] guidance’ (Prov. 1:2-5).
Therefore, lady wisdom cries out saying: ‘Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold’ (Prov. 8:10).
The reason wisdom is better than silver and gold is because, without wisdom, a person can have great material and circumstantial blessings but they will be unable to cope with them. By contrast, wisdom is that which enables a person to flourish no matter the circumstances – good or bad, rich or poor.
What would it look like to start to prioritise wisdom in the midst of the 24/7 news cycle? Here are three suggestions:
1. Disconnect from the live feed. Only in very rare situations do we actually need to know ‘live’ information. The rest of the time the live news feed does not contribute much, except excessive consumption and anxiety. Why not resolve instead to read or listen to the news once or twice a day only, in a more settled format where there is proper reporting and analysis.
2. Ask the ‘so what’? Once you’ve read the news, why not pause for a moment to ask a question that escapes most of us: ‘What am I going to do with this information to live wisely in God’s world?’ Perhaps turn what you have read into a prayer for the world, perhaps you might need to change something in your life as a result? Try to get into the habit of not just ‘knowing stuff’, but fostering a wise response to what you know.
3. Beware the sensational and partisan. Algorithms push the sensational into our feeds and present us with hidden echo chambers. It’s part of why our social discourse is so polarised. Try to read both sides of a story. If you identify with one particular news outlet or newspaper could you also read a different source to give you a different take? People who only seek information to reinforce what they want to believe are rarely wise and balanced individuals.
Article originally published in Pete Nicholas’ column on the Evangelical News website.