Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
In 2020, channel-flipping has taken over our days, and doomscrolling is consuming our nights. (iStock)

Henry David Thoreau used to make fun of people like us.

“Hardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner,” the poet snarked in 1854, “but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.”

No disrespect to the bard of Walden Pond, but he didn’t have to live through 1 a.m. tweets from the president of the United States announcing he caught a deadly virus during a global pandemic.

“I wake up several times a night in a panic and grab my phone to see the latest,” says Kay Bolden of Shorewood, Ill. “If I accidentally leave my phone inside while I walk the dog or water the garden, I’m a nervous wreck until I can check the news again.”

Turn on CNN or Fox News, and there’s a helicopter taking President Trump to the hospital. Refresh Twitter, and nearly all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are in quarantine. Check your news apps and see another firestorm in the West, another hurricane in the East, another unarmed Black man shot by police, another update to our national coronavirus death toll.

Sleep? At a time like this? No way. So we stay up late, doomscrolling on our phones until our eyes dry out. During the day, we let television sets roar while we juggle jobs (if we are lucky enough to have them), children, dishes. We want to shut the news off, but we can’t get enough.

“This is no way to live,” Bolden admits. “But how can I relax? The country is going crazy.”

Our news media ecosystem has been building to meet this crazy moment. Forty years ago saw the birth of cable news with CNN, the conceit of which was basically “let’s train our cameras on what’s happening and let it unfold, so that the viewer never wants to turn it off,” says Lisa Napoli, author of “Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-hour News.”

Even if he couldn’t have envisioned an event quite like this, CNN’s first president, Reese Schonfeld, certainly prepared for it when building the network, Napoli adds. He “imagined unfolding news captivating viewers like a live drama.”

Welp, talk about a live drama. The problem, now, of course, is that there’s no end in sight. We’re in the middle of a presidential election, a sudden Supreme Court vacancy, the aforementioned global pandemic, natural disasters and the biggest social protest movement in decades. And each new development is more unbelievable than the last.

“It’s like a plot keeps churning, twist after twist, and they just keep the character arc going up and up and up, and you’re just waiting for that last third of the book where the protagonist gets their revenge or it comes to a nice happily-ever-after — and it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen,” says Elisa Nader of Ashburn, Va. She tries to tune it out with “The Great British Baking Show” at night, and walks outside during the day. “But I get back on my phone because it’s like, you’re afraid to miss something, even if it doesn’t matter if I miss something.”

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In Dallas, English professor Karen Roggenkamp has a pile of papers to grade, children to help with distance learning and a house that “currently resembles a dilapidated pigsty.

“Yet every time I put my phone down or turn off the radio,” she says, “I feel a crush of not knowing if I am missing any news updates or some important new ‘angle’ on a story I’m following.”

News consumption jumped dramatically at the start of the pandemic in March, when several news outlets reported spikes in Web traffic. Digital readership has since leveled off some, but for many sites, it’s still higher than pre-pandemic times. Over the summer, cable outlets like Fox News and the evening newscasts of the three big networks attracted some of the biggest audiences they’ve had in years.

But the news cycle has gotten out of hand in recent weeks, and many of us have the horrifying screen-time reports to show for it.

Tracy Dingmann and her boyfriend had planned a getaway to northern New Mexico on a recent weekend — “peaceful, non-connected, disconnected type of vacation.” But “the whole time we were just glued to MSNBC — which, unfortunately, I get through satellite radio in my car,” she says. As long as they could get reception on their phones, they frantically checked Twitter for updates and launched into “long, intense discussions” about the news, she says.

Is all of this news healthy for us as thinking and feeling humans? Let’s consult an expert.

“The clear message of research from the last 20 years is that there is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to bad news,” says Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California at Irvine.

So why do we torture ourselves like this? Silver conducted a study of more than 4,000 people during an especially intense period of news — from the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 through the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando — and found that trauma-related media exposure fuels a cycle that just creates more and more distress.

“One of the ways people respond to their anxieties about a particular crisis is to monitor the media about that crisis,” she says. “But that serves to amplify the distress, which leads to increased concerns, which leads to media consumption.”

It’s like being scared of spiders and then constantly scanning every room you enter for spiders and WebMDing “spider bites side effects.” Or freaking out about the state of our democracy and studying the 25th Amendment at 3 a.m.

It’s a cycle that’s very difficult to escape.

“I’m not in any way advocating people put their head in the sand or censorship,” Silver says. “I’m just saying, make news consumption a more conscious decision.”

Some have taken some drastic measures to manage this situation: news fasts, deleting apps, putting phones on “airplane mode.”

“I have thought about getting a flip phone,” confesses Shazat Shawan of Brooklyn, who, it should be noted here, is 23. “Maybe that will stop the constant barrage of information getting thrown my way.”

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Karen Ho, a finance and economics reporter for Quartz, has become the “Doomscrolling Reminder Lady” on Twitter, where she tweets tips on how to unwind and reminds her followers every night that it’s okay to put their phones down and go to bed.

“Most of the stuff on Twitter is not worth looking at right before going to bed. It’s bad for anxiety and depression, and I remind people they’re worth doing things that make them happy,” Ho says. “It can feel like a small act of agency when that’s been taken away.”

Ho gets it. Many of our normal distractions are now gone. The pandemic has eliminated concerts, movie theater nights, parties. Whereas past news cycles ebbed and flowed over time, the kinds of crises that once came every few months now hit us every day, which also adds to the distress, Silver says. All while our fellow citizens navigate job losses or heavy workloads, children home from school or the care of sick loved ones.

Bolden, the Illinois woman who can’t walk her dog without looking at her phone, says she’s worried about the election, her health-care access and being Black in America. Watching the news feels like ascending a gigantic roller coaster that’s so long “you can’t see the top. You can’t see where it’s going.”

“You just know,” she says, “that going down is going to be rough.”