It’s incredible how much access we have right in the palm of our hands today. The options are almost endless. However, along with the pros of this, there are also cons. Our computers and smartphones haven’t only brought us endless avenues of being constantly in touch with our friends and families, and having shopping, music, games, and much more right in the palm of hour hands. Unfortunately, this type of access can also contribute to increased anxiety and mental stress.
I hear many people talk about how much “the world has changed” over the past ten years, or so. But I’ll raise a question, just for consideration: Has the world really changed, or has our awareness, perspective, and access to the world changed?
The Past World
Before the internet virtually exploded onto the planet, like a present day Big Bang, people mainly had three avenues through which to learn about events in the world: daily newspapers, radio, and news on tv. The word “daily” needs to be emphasized here. If you read something in the newspaper one morning and wanted to know more about the story, you either watched the news that night to see if there would be more information, listened to the radio, or you waited for the newspaper to arrive the next morning. That was basically how it worked.
People would get their dose of daily news, and then they’d go about their day. Maybe they discussed what they heard on the radio or read in the newspaper with co-workers, maybe they thought about something in the news that resonated with their lives, but there was much less attention to the outside world because there was much less information available. People still had their own life issues to deal with — it wasn’t a care-free time, by any means — but there was generally much less to be distracted by in one’s day before the internet.
How the Internet and Media Contribute to Stress and Anxiety
With the existence of the internet, we have the world’s biggest double-edged sword: having everything in the palm of our hands. Sure, we do have significantly positive access at our fingertips. But, the problem is how much more information exists a whole, and it’s constantly being added to throughout each day. Now, it’s not just the stories from the morning paper or evening news, there’s seemingly an endless amount of reporting space.
The media is constantly searching for information, no matter how meaningless or irrelevant the stories may be. How often have you heard a story and wondered, “Why is this news?” Sure, this went on before the internet as well, but it was on a much smaller scale since the space for reporting was so limited. Now, if there isn’t an updated or new story every few minutes, journalists are almost behind the game.
As a result, we are being constantly inundated with information that is often magnified simply for the purposes of getting people to read or follow. The problem is, our brains only have the capacity to take in so much. Even if we check our phones all day long for news updates, most likely we’re only seeing a small percentage of the information that exists now. So, if we’re not constantly keeping up, we are also behind. And it’s not just the news stories — it’s keeping up with the lives of our friends and acquaintances through the various social media, including almost limitless texting capacity (which keeps conversations ongoing), and all other intrigues of the internet.
This kind of environment creates an information overload. What people consider to be ‘multitasking’ is actually not possible. The human brain can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. When we multitask, we actually are focusing on single tasks for bits and pieces of time. This can end up creating symptoms similar to that of ADHD, where it can become very difficult to focus on any one activity for a length of time. Attention span is essentially diminished because there is an overwhelming amount of information constantly surrounding us. We’re like children in a huge toy store — but imagine being in that toy store while trying to work, or be with family, or study, or have interpersonal relationships at the same time. This is essentially what we do in our daily lives with the internet.
As alluded to earlier in this article, it isn’t only the amount of information that causes the stress and anxiety symptoms (though that gets its due credit), it’s also the type of information. The media often utilizes scare tactics to draw an audience. It’s subjective to say what is and isn’t newsworthy, but it’s hard not to notice the stories that strike unnecessary fear into people (for example, a news report every time an airplane is diverted, or someone was taken off a plane before takeoff for being too loud.). So between the amount and type of information that is available, people’s anxiety and stress increases.
There’s also the issue of certain resources that actually hurt more than help. For example, looking up illness symptoms on the internet. Many people begin diagnosing themselves with terminal illnesses or severe mental health disorders because they feel they have a couple of listed symptoms that correlate. When people have a fear, the psychological response is often to validate the fear with evidence, rather than to find a way to discredit the fear. so having too much information available can actually fuel a harmful thought-process.
So, Now What?
To clarify, this article isn’t meant to be anti-media or anti-internet, as much as it’s meant to foster awareness of how our virtually unlimited access to the world can overwhelm us psychologically, resulting in increased stress (including physical symptoms of stress — headaches, gastrointestinal issues, back pain, etc), anxiety, and attention span and focus issues. The reality is, too much space for information means too much information. The hours in the days haven’t increased from the pre-internet days, but how much we try to cram into our brains in our days has dramatically increased.
- Consider setting daily times for leisure activity on the internet — whether it’s reading news stories, shopping, sports, etc.
- If you work with a computer, consider shutting off the internet when possible to be more present.
- Put your phone away, out of reach, and set a time to check the phone for a few minutes every so often.
- Question news stories that stir anxiety or fear in you. They may be more dramatic (magnified) than necessary. Ask yourself such questions as, “Why is this being reported the way it is,” or, “Why is this being reported at all?” The answer can often be, “Because people will read it.”
It’s our job to manage what we allow ourselves to be drawn into, to understand what we’re drawn to, and to monitor how much time we spend away from present reality by being on our computers and phones. Setting boundaries and developing an understanding of what we see on the internet will help us prevent unnecessary psychological overload.