News Makes Me Anxious

A picture of a smartphone and a set of hands handcuffed to the phone with the auxillary phone cord.
News Makes Me Anxious: Take a Digital Sabbath?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I feel  bad-tempered these days and my ex says it’s because I am watching so much news on my phone. It’s true that my phone is my main source. There is a lot happening out there and I want to stay informed. Maybe the news makes me anxious and worried? I want to keep up but not feel so stressed about our future. Suzanne, Sausalito

Dear Suzanne: The news has indeed been grim these past few weeks. It’s doubtful that anyone can view it and come away feeling positive about the social order. So lighten up and do not be so hard on yourself.  But does the news make people anxious? If so, you are not alone. Nearly half of adults say that they get primary news on social media and a third on Facebook.

If you step back and ask what is “broadcast news”  it was only one- hour long 40 years ago. Then, in 1980 Turner’s Cable New Network (CNN) launched 24 hour news and it changed the business model. A similar innovation around 2012, was the round-the-clock news feed that you participate in using your phone, say on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. Social media sites beckon you in if you are engaged, informed or just passionate about a topic.  However, as you engage, you will never be sure if others there are legitimate, or if they have a special interest lurking behind the posts. Even worse, they could be bots fabricating elements of the story or pictures. 

So, it may be that your anxiousness – or bad temper as you put it- comes from the hard work it takes to engage with social news media and keep it straight. When you go online to these news sites you process a large volume of information, but you process it out of context, in pieces, and without full trust in the sources. When you think about it that way, it’s not about you. Following the news on social media is tricky and cognitively taxing.  This is not the only reason that the news can make you anxious, but I think this one gets downplayed.

I would recommend that you take a Digital Sabbath. A Digital Sabbath is not religious- it’s a designated break from using your phone, in this case for news watching. You begin with just one day a week. You are likely to find that you are not missing anything during this 24 hour break. Soon, hopefully, you will be able to incorporate  more  time-offs into your routine. 

By the way, there are a number of studies in mental health that link depression and anxiety to news watching. Longitudinal studies  done after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016 paint a grim picture. The academic researchers found that viewers who saw the devastating pictures over and over again were more likely to be anxious and have prolonged stress going forward. If you search, you will find many studies that vet a relationship between anxiety and news viewing.  A noteworthy branch is now called “climate anxiety.” Since 2011 psychologists have observed a relationship between indirect exposure to climate stories transmitted by the media and feelings of worry, despair, and guilt. 

That said, researchers still do not know, and they may never, whether people who are more anxious and stressed turn to media, or if this association is fueled by media viewing.  That’s key!

Since both mental health research and your own experience point to the out-sized role of social media I offer some final advice. If you want to keep up with the news but become less emotionally involved in it then subscribe to a daily newspaper. There is compelling evidence (from the Covid era) that the written stories and pictures are less involving, so readers stay more emotionally distant. Research finds no significant association between newspaper coverage of natural disasters, wars, and trauma and psychological outcomes such as depression, stress, or anxiety. Newspapers should equip you to take in the daily complement of worldwide events without getting irritable, crying, or sad.

Where is the Instruction Manual?

“Consumers do not generally seek relationships with black boxes that come in cardboard boxes.”

Photo of the back of a router. There are two antennae on the back of this router.
Where is the Instruction Manual for this Router?!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When the router for my house ‘died’ last week, my wife and I went to a big box store to replace it. Fortunately, they had one in stock. When I opened the box the  instruction book was not included! On a piece of cardboard a single line of text instructed us to download an app to our phone. This app, when downloaded, would walk us through the setup. But, that was not feasible because our phones needed Wi-Fi service to get the app installed. We have a fairly good cellular plan for home and 5G ready phones,  but still not enough service as that download just spun and spun. Fortunately, we had kept the instruction booklet from the old router and on a lark, we tried to reset it, following the instructions in this paper booklet. Voila! It worked. The next day I returned the new router (unused) to the big box store and complained about the set up requiring me to download an app, they were indifferent. Mack, Tiburon

Dear Mack: This is what they call a Catch-22. You thought you needed a new router to broadcast a Wi-Fi signal through your home, but there was no way to get this Wi-Fi signal until you set up the router! When you went to return the device, the big box store didn’t care. 

Tragically, the experience you describe is becoming way too common. In lieu of “where is the instruction manual” and producing a working set of print directions, tech companies shift “onboarding” to the Internet. In lieu of print, they produce a YouTube type video, and, in the case of routers, separate onboarding apps for Android and iPhone. 

Look Here? Or There?

I can’t answer for these companies. There are three possible reasons I see that they engage in this shenanigan. One is techno-exuberance. The engineers may subscribe to the Elon Musk ethic that “any product that needs an owner’s manual to work is broken.” Perhaps router engineers are not so versed in telecommunications after all!  They need to step outside their warp-speed data bubble to follow how their products might connect (or do not) in the real world. Shame!

The second reason, again so narrow, is that this tech company imagines they are a better corporate citizen and a more sustainable enterprise when they do not need to print set-up directions. Did they have a Christmas tree in their offices or at home? Have they forgotten that trees are renewable?

The third reason that such companies- ones that produce routers and like-minded electronic devices, make you depend on your phone- could be more nefarious. If you are able to download their setup instructions to your smartphone, then these companies are able to get your digital credentials. They can associate your phone number, the IP address that you login from, your email, and more. It’s not an equal data exchange for you!

Reaching Out for You?

Now, such companies probably have a different perspective, and believe that they can contact you should there be a product recall , warranty work,or a product update. Chances are they have designed a good product and will not need to trace you. More likely, they are seeding their ‘relationship marketing.” Except that you, the owner of this tech device, are not wanting, or needing, this seed! Consumers do not generally seek relationships with black boxes that come in cardboard boxes.  Wall St. Journal writer Matthew Kronsberg makes the point that a paper manual can do things that a screen can’t: it doesn’t go to sleep when you are (building something), and it can’t be hurled across the room in a fit of frustration without shattering into a million pieces. 

Where is the Instruction Manual?

I am sorry for the inconvenience you suffered (the big box store probably parroted the same line) but I mean this sincerely. When I teach classes on the iPhone and Android, I am aghast at the number of students who do not know where to look for basic controls. Their phones do not come with instructional books, and they are embarrassed about asking for help. So, for example, they miss incoming calls when the little sound toggle is switched to off, not on.

 If tech is truly friendly, then new smartphones and routers need to be packaged with an owner’s manual. And surprisingly, most flip phones still do. At the turn of the last century, not everyone was literate, so the philanthropic set up public libraries.  If there are no printed instructions says this English journalist, then we need to establish public workshops so everyone has the chance to investigate, repair and more deeply appreciate their mobile devices.

Checking Phones for Work?

Watching the baby at home. Watching my phone too?

A cartoon of three Hasidic men , ech carrying an infant in a baby carrier that they wear around their shoulder. One carrier is pink, one green, one yellow
Men Pushing Baby Carriages or checking phones for work!? Source: The Forward.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I manage a sales team and seldom take more than a day or two off from work. Since Covid began our office is all remote and I am checking the phones for work. This Fall I am taking a few weeks off to stay home with our new baby. In principle, I should not have to check my phone at all. But is that realistic? The people at work say they will respect my time out of the office, but I don’t want them to let them down either. Teo, Boulder

Dear Teo: Phones make it difficult to find that work-home balance and it has to be doubly difficult when babies or children demand our attention. Checking in with co-workers while you are off-duty seems innocuous, but it subtracts time and attention from your kids. During Covid, as you noted, phones became an office-on-demand. Now you have to retrain your sales team, and yourself, to use it more selectively, i.e. when to be checking phones for work.

It seems like the programmers of Silicon Valley have felt your pain! Or became new Moms and Dads. The newest iPhone operating system (i0S 15) has a feature called Focus. It lets you set time blocks when you are available, and for whom. Say you are driving in the car. The Focus setting disables all incoming calls and texts. It sends would-be callers or texters a stock message:  you are unavailable but will circle back.  When you are indoors and quietly reading a book, your phone can continue to screen callers, or allow rings from that sales team.

Focus is a suitable name for this new function. That said, it’s been available on phones with less bells and whistles as “Do Not Disturb.” Back then, you didn’t need to have i0S 15, or any software at all to enable the feature. Just a watch and alarm.

How to Focus:

Writers, scientists and graduate students use features like Focus all the time. They require activity blocks, without phones, for a period of deep concentration. They might be working on a laptop or desktop, and probably just one or two programs, like the terminal, a spreadsheet, or word processor. 

Meanwhile, the co-workers  trying to reach you are not going to know whether you are deep in concentration or changing a diaper, so Focus’ messaging helps. It lets them know when you are  checking in and will circle back. And, with practice, Focus will keep you from secretly picking up the phone to see if you missed something. You can always allow one phone, say from your boss, to override the settings.

Not ALways So Focused!:

Alas, at the other end of the spectrum, at home, it’s not so tidy.  Parents can’t easily set boundaries that young kids will adhere too. Infants demand attention on their own schedule and have an uncanny ability to sense when they getting any less than 100% of their parents’ attention. You might be tempted to put the kiddos in front of their own screen. Yet, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for kids until they’re 18 to 24 months old, except for video chatting. For children ages 2 to 5 their recommendation is an hour or less of screen time per day. Real parents know that it is hard to resist introducing screens when you need some downtime. So, if you turn to the screen, do it together and make it a shared activity.

Be aware that  it seems innocuous to sneak a call to the office when you are taking a stroll together, watching over the playground, or cleaning up the toy box. We don’t know how micro- moments add up, but there are hints that eye to eye contact and baby-talk time provide developmental boosts.

As you set your phone’s boundaries, with or without the help of I0S, remember that time and attention are your most precious resource. They are the only things  you give away, and cannot get back. Enjoy!