It can be hard to look away from your phone and live your life while terrible events are unfolding.
Whether it’s a mass shooting at home or war abroad, breaking news can mean an unrelenting flow of images, videos and graphic updates filling social media, messaging apps and news sites. Then there are longer-term issues like COVID, climate change and ongoing humanitarian crisis that feel impossible to look away from.
It’s important to stay informed, engaged and even outraged. But it’s also important to pay attention to our own limits and mental health by taking breaks, looking for signs of burnout and consuming news in the smartest way possible.
That means setting some ground rules for the main portal connecting us to nonstop tragedy: our phones.
— Give yourself permission to take a break. It is OK to hit pause on the doom and go live your life, whether that means going outside with the kids or just losing yourself on the silly side of TikTok. It’s necessary for everyone’s mental health.
“It’s really important for us to give ourselves permission to set boundaries about our news consumption and social media,” says Kristen Choi, an assistant professor of health policy and management at UCLA and a psychiatric nurse who works with kids and adults. “That constant influx of traumatic images and content can really wear on our minds.”
Many people are already burned out from two years of the pandemic, says Choi, and their reserves for coping and dealing with stress are low right now. It’s a recipe for anxiety and depression. On top of that, constant exposure to violence and negative news can warp our thinking. It can give people a negative bias in how they view the world. Choi says it can cause people to see everything in absolutes — for example, thinking that if they take a break from the news that means they don’t care about the issue. Finally, it can lead people to think the worst possible outcome is going to happen, known as catastrophizing.
— Take time for self-care. A break is not a few minutes away from Twitter. Start with real breaks of at least 30 minutes to an hour so that your brain has time to come down from what you were last watching or reading. Work up to longer periods of time if you can, ideally taking them throughout the day, with a longer break before bed.
How you spend your non-doomscrolling time is just as important as remembering to take it. Ideally, you’ll put your phone down and take a technology break, but if your ideal way to unwind is watching some light Netflix, that’s fine too — just turn on your phone’s do-not-disturb mode.
Choi recommends using your time to do some activities known to help with stress reduction (aka self-care), including exercise, mindfulness and meditation, journaling, engaging in hobbies and other activities you enjoy, spending time with family and friends, and doing faith-based activities if you practice.
For guided meditation, try out dedicated apps such as Headspace or Calm (check for free trials and ask if your employer offers a discount), or find any of the great offerings on YouTube.
— Change your news habits. The same tricks used for avoiding misinformation can help you follow news in a healthier way. Disinformation like propaganda is designed to capture your attention and elicit strong emotions, which can contribute to any anxiety you’re already feeling. Instead, stick with reputable sources and use tools like Google News or Apple News to see a variety of content that is more likely to be vetted. If you can wait, opt for deeply reported stories at the end of the day over constant smaller updates. Avoid using social media for news, but if you do, follow sources and people that contribute to your understanding of an issue rather than those that just generate more outrage.
The news recipe will be different for everyone. Some people find it’s helpful to do deep dives into a topic and gather as much background or history as possible instead of just reacting to a sensational headline or quick cable news clips. Others might prefer the main takeaway of a news story without any disturbing details. Whether it’s podcasts or TikToks, figure out what is least overwhelming for you.
— Turn on screen time limits. About four years ago, the big tech companies pushed out features to address growing concerns about too much screen time and smartphone “addiction.” The settings were an attempt to calm critics of the companies, which had made the very products people couldn’t put down. The options are still around, if somewhat forgotten. This is a great time to turn them on.
The settings vary but you can set your Android or iPhone to allow only certain amounts of time for individual apps, or make it so you can only use your phone for essential things like communication with family members, depending on the time of day.
The most-used apps have also added some of their own similar settings. Facebook has time management features in its mobile app. Open Facebook on your phone or tablet and tap the icon that looks like three lines in the bottom corner. Scroll down and tap Settings & Privacy; Settings; Your Time on Facebook (in the Preferences section).
On Instagram, go to your profile, hit the same three-line icon and select Your Activity. Tap on Time Spent and you’ll find settings to set reminders, to take a break or to set daily time limits for how much you can use the app.
And in TikTok, go to Settings and Privacy and tap on Digital Wellbeing. You can set a time limit for how much you can use the app, from 40 to 120 minutes a day.
— Talk to your children. Your children may not be watching or reading the news but the information trickles down to them, especially when it’s about scary things that have happened to other kids. Taking care of yourself is key to making sure they’re able to process their own emotions, and it can help ensure you’re available to them when they need. Take time out from your own consumption to talk to them about what they may be hearing or seeing, be honest and direct but age appropriate, and make sure they feel safe by reassuring them, even if you’re not sure it will all be OK yourself.
— Be stingy with notifications. They’re one of the best parts of smartphones and one of the worst parts of smartphones. Nearly every app has options for notifications of some kind, and your phone has settings for the different types: quiet, loud, in your face, discreetly on the top of your screen.
Go through all the notifications you currently get and turn off any duplicates, keep the ones that make you happy (sports updates, Instagram DMs) and turn off any that are stressing you out.
— View your phone in black and white. In your smartphone’s accessibility settings there is an option to make the screen black and white instead of color. Some studies have indicated that turning this on leads to less screen time, and it’s a trick Choi uses herself.
— Know when to ask for help. Look for signs that you are burned out or experiencing serious anxiety. First, consider whether you’re predisposed to reacting strongly to a particular issue. Anyone who has personally dealt with similar trauma or war in the past might find constant vivid social media posts about Ukraine to be triggering.
Be careful about bottling up your emotional reactions to the news. This kind of compartmentalizing might be helpful in the short term, but Choi says you still have to process the emotions at some point or risk them coming out later in unexpected ways, affecting your mental health.
Look for signs that your anxiety has become serious. Are you in a constant state of anxiety, with your heart racing faster than normal most of the time or a sense of panic that doesn’t go away? Is your anxiety impacting your sleep patterns, diet or basic ability to take care of yourself? Is it hurting your work or affecting your relationships? If so, it’s time to ask for help. You can start by talking to trusted friends or family members, then finding a professional therapist through your insurance, your work or local organizations. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has some resources on its site.
“It’s OK to seek help,” says Choi. “It’s not a sign of weakness.”