We are 2 decades into the 21st century, and the world is growing increasingly digital. I remember discussions from our journalism class less than ten years back where we discussed the possibilities of citizen journalism and the internet for building a meaningful discourse in society. A single peek into any social networking site, and those discussions seem like foolish naïve dreams. Fake news being peddled, personal data being sold, increasing surveillance by states, deepfake videos, are just some of the disturbing trends of recent times. It is not just the manipulation that comes with online platforms and news sources. What about doomscrolling and how it negatively affects mental health? How do we maintain our sanity and navigate through the internet? And how do we best equip our students to use the internet responsibly? Here are three questions that any user of the internet can ask as they come across news or events on the internet. The first two are more proactive in nature (requiring prior deliberation) while the third is reactive in nature. Both are quite necessary.
Do I need to be online?
Doomscrolling is a term that has increasingly come into use since the pandemic began. It can be defined as “the act of consuming an endless procession of negative online news, to the detriment of the scroller’s mental wellness.” Doomscrolling has been found to negatively impact mental health. In other words, if you are going online just to kill the time, it may harm your mental health. So, the first question to ask yourself is “Do I need to be online?” This is an area I am still working on myself. But the days that I do not go online needlessly are days I do feel better in general. Media avoidance or filtering is one of the ways of coping with the negative mental health impacts of media overdose. Set personal boundaries. Whenever I think of fences, I always think of a fence I saw along the cliff of an Ooty hill station. The fence was meant to protect tourists from falling down the cliff. Setting fences for yourself in terms of how much time you would spend online is a great way to protect your mental wellbeing. The android application Digital Wellbeing is a great way to ensure (as the name suggests) wellbeing by setting timers for each app. At the end of the day, these are just tools. What is important is to decide to set the boundaries.
Can I do something about this?
This question goes back to the age-old wisdom of avoiding gossip. Numerous anecdotes are told about famous figures who refuse to listen to stories if it doesn’t concern them. Stephen Covey, in his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” writes about the need to avoid worrying about things that are outside our circle of control or our circle of influence. We must however admit that there is a sense in which all world events concern us if we do not wish to become the proverbial frog in the well. Totalitarian regimes and injustice in general thrive in environments of disinformation. There is a balance to be struck here. Sharing important news with friends and colleagues can be highly useful for ensuring that justice is done. Information is powerful and trending hashtags on Twitter can elicit powerful responses from the Government.
Once again the advice to set boundaries comes in. Decide in advance how many news articles you will read in a day (or how much time you will spend watching the news), how many articles or videos you will share with others, how much time you would spend online, and so on. In addition to this, if you feel the need to talk about it, do so in person – with friends, colleagues and family (if they are interested). In person interactions will always be less toxic than social media arguments.
What is the source of this information?
This is a question primarily to guard ourselves against misinformation online. If the news is from a website or a source that has a high history of truthfulness, it is more trustworthy. On a general note, established print media houses have a higher reliability score. But there is a sense in which the question is not always so helpful. Even established media houses could often have a percentage of truth rather than the full truth (and nothing but the truth). The question of truth is murky. But a majority of fake news can be avoided by simply checking what website the news is originating from. It might be wise to distrust almost all WhatsApp (or email) forwards, (unless the one forwarding them is personally involved in the case.)
These questions may not insulate us from all misinformation or damaging content online. But it certainly can help us maintain our sanity most of the time. And over time, we may become better consumers of content we come across online.