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.

Should I keep landline for emergencies?

If I keep a landline phone for emergencies are robocalls part of the price I pay?

A picture of an old fashioned desk phone with a rotary dial.
Should I keep landline for emergencies?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am keeping a landline in case there is an emergency, but this landline is getting so many robocalls that I have to take it “off-the-hook” at night to silence it. I like the idea of having a backup phone in my house, but it is an extra expense. And, assuming I keep this landline for emergencies is there a way that I can stop it from ringing with so many annoying spam calls? DeeAnn, Tiburon

Dear DeeAnn: Your question has two parts:  should I keep a landline for emergencies if normal communication channels fail? Second, how do I reduce the annoyance of robocalls on a landline phone? People often confuse a landline with a different type of phone that plugs into the wall. It’s called the VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). But, I checked back with you, and you have a hard-wired phone that is cabled to a telecomm company like AT&T or Verizon.

A number of households still maintain hard wired phones because they expect them to operate during a failure of the power grid. Hard wired phones are powered by a low voltage system that is separate from the electrical grid. But during the last big power outage in Marin, some of these phones still failed.  Here are some tidbits from an earlier column: 

2019….all over

“In Northern California, many households keep two phones: there is the regular cell-phone, and then a separate landline for emergencies. The landline is e`xpected to be the backup when cell towers go down. It is the lifeline to receive a call or reach ‘911’.

During the October 2019 fires, these landlines often failed…alongside with the PG&E electrical service. It turns out that ‘POTS’, which stands for Plain Old Telephone Service; i.e., the landline connected to a phone jack, is not as reliable as it used to be. Here’s why:

With the growth of the Internet, fiber optic lines have replaced many copper telephone cables. But, fiber optics don’t have the same ability as copper lines to maintain service indefinitely when there is a power failure Before the Internet, telephone companies routed calls with paired copper cable, a method that required almost no external power, except at the Central Switching Station.

Under everyday conditions, fiber optics are the backbone for calling and the Internet. They out-perform copper wire because of their lightning speed, capacity, and cost. However, fiber optics (and coaxial cable) depend on electricity to power the system. When there is a complete electricity shutdown the fiber optics fail, unless there is an external generator for electrical backup.” 

2022….anew

Your question reminds me how far we have traveled, and how far we have regressed when it comes to telephony. The Bell network was engineered to be 99.9% reliable, and was trusted to perform across disasters like an earthquake or fire. The technology was simple but robust. Now, the underlying network is different and it is nearly impossible to build in the same degree of reliability.

So, if you want to stay connected and maintain two-way communications during an emergency- my personal recommendation might be to get a citizen band radio. The CB technology does not rely on cellular service or fiber optics,  and is more likely to be operative when other telecomm options fail. That said, you will need to have a backup power source, perhaps batteries. At the other end of the spectrum (literally) you might investigate a subscription to a satellite phone. These devices are expensive, but used in rugged, out-of-door conditions and operate independently of the phone network.

Robocall cocktail

As for the second part of your question- about the robocalls. They were not “invented” until the 1980s when computers became relatively inexpensive and software became accessible. They were initially deployed for political polling.  I personally worked for telecoms and they developed security countermeasures. Among them were unlisted phone numbers (for which you paid a fee), Caller ID, and later the government initiated “The Do Not Call Registry”

Fast forward many years and there is  a new privacy protocol  mandated by the FCC and  just beginning. It’s called SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information using toKENS), and it’s named after a martini moment in a James Bond movie (not kidding). SHAKEN uses “trust” a so-called digital certificate to stop robocalls. But as Internet users know digital certificates attract spoofers. STIR, a second FCC protocol, is being enacted for the VOIP phones, and it is further along than SHAKEN. You’ll probably need lots of STIR/SHAKEN martinis before those robocalls cease. 

LESS SPAM on Mobile

I imagine the FCC would have acted sooner had smartphones not pulled the carpet (and wires) out of cabled phones. Mobile phones have amassed fairly strong, built-in protocols for reducing robocalls. First, they use an algorithm somewhat like the STIR to detect a fraudulent number and label it as SPAM. Then, if a robocall is answered, users report it to a blacklist with just a scroll and a click. There’s no messing around with the ‘Do Not Call‘ registry. And, smartphones hand each of us controls to silence calls through multiple settings such as ‘do not ring through’, ‘go directly to voicemail’, ‘ focus’ and the mainstay ‘airplane mode.’ 

The need for local, reliable and community-based telecom is a constant, whether you have a landline,  a mobile phone, or both. A local telecomm initiative in Marin is called “Digital Marin” and your two concerns, robocalls and reliability, are likely to be at their forefront.

Phone Detox #dryJanuary?

DryJanuary and DryPhone??

A stock photo. Instead of seeing a ladies face as she holds a smartphone in her handsd, we see a white cloud enveloping her face and features.
Phone Detox for January? Getty Images- Francesco Carta (ABC News)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My brother-in-law encouraged me to try #dryjanuary and it got me thinking. Should I counter and tell him to take a phonedetox #dry January? Yes, I like my occasional drink but he is a maniac when it comes to being on his phone. He favors it over conversation, uses it as a shield to avoid difficult topics, and spends countless hours scrolling. When it comes to phones, he is the original addict. Maybe I’ll send him this column! Carlo, San Francisco

Dear Carlo: In the Bay Area there has been nothing dry this January. It rained, then  poured, then flooded. So, spending all this extra time indoors, many of us have turned to our phones more frequently. Excess time and attention on the phone can become a bad habit, like the need for #dryjanuary. Cutting back might improve our well being, mental health, and relationships with other people, right?!

But, while a digital detox sounds like an important regime change, it is also overrated and over promoted. We can’t go cold-turkey because we need our phones to do basic things, connect with others, and stay modern. But, there is a @dearsmartphone way to use the start of a New Year to evaluate our habits, and seek better ones.

I have invented a personal acronym for this. The acronym is even more potent than alcohol! It’s O-P-M and let your mind fill in the missing letters, an ‘I and U’. Catchy isn’t it?!

The goal of the O-P-M paradigm is to help you take stock of your phone habits and analyze how your time and energy are spent. You don’t have to be addicted to your phone, or have bad phone habits to pay attention- so yes, share with your brother in law. There are three main reasons why we reach for our phones. The O-P-M acronym identifies each one and helps you understand and control your habits.

O- operations

O stands for the multitude of Operations we use phones for. More and more activities from keyless entry to our cars, digital money on phones, and boarding passes for our travel trips- are enabled through the smartphone. There are also built in phone features that require no additional software like the flashlight, the alarm clock, a note taker- you get the picture.

It’s useful when you take the O-P-M test to count the number of ‘O’ activities (Operations) you do with your phone. If you want to scale back time on the phone and control the proliferation, carefully asses whether you want a particular function to be on your phone. Ask if there is an alternative to doing this activity on your smartphone. Not to pick on people who use their phone as an alarm clock, but health concerns about blue light and Melatonin would keep me up at night.

P- Person to Person

P stands for person-to-person activities we do on our phone. Within that, there are three main categories. Phones are person-to-person through text, through phone calls, and through email. Each one of these can be corrupted by non-persons, for example, robocalls, but for the most part, they are the bastions of connectivity. Two things increased a lot during Covid- one was alcohol consumption, hence the invention of #dryjanuary, and the other was picking up the phone to P-to P chats. When you are assessing your time and energy on smartphones in this New Year, P to P is the area you want to keep strong.

M- Media

M here is for Media- namely using our phones to access infotainment and social media. The difference between P-to -P and Media is that Media is more public. On Facebook you might receive messages from a group you belong to, or from a business that wants to reach you. And you might post to the group, or add photos to your wall. The point is that these messages resemble broadcasts, they are more public, and reach people beyond your personal acquaintances. Social media has made it possible for everyone to be a broadcaster and create messages that are intended for a wider audience. It has also made it possible to receive messages that are interesting and personalized, but designed with technology to grab attention and maximize the time we spend online and the number of click-throughs.

So, I recommend that you look at your media consumption, and evaluate whether the time you spend on the M is time well-spent.Say you read a print newspaper each day. In the past that might take 15 of 20 minutes of time and that would have created a daily picture of the outside world. In 2022, say you spend 20 minutes on social media. Will that help you understand the daily picture of the outside world, and create a composite view of what is taking place? One of the most insidious problems with the ‘M” of social media is that it reproduces what we like to see, and narrows our focus into so-called “filter bubbles.”

I-U

You will recall that the missing letters in the O-P- M are the ‘I and the U’. There will be overlaps between using social media to connect with a single individual or friend. Perhaps you want to tag this special person on social media or send them an image or meme through Facebook. Social media may be the currency you share in your P to P relationship. Our conversations are changing.

January is a good time to reflect on things we imbibe- both food, drink, and media. The latter is the one most easily overlooked. My own thinking on this has been improved by Dave Clear’s book called “Atomic Habits.” Old habits are not forever, and January is a fine time to shed some of them.