How to Stop Scrolling Coronavirus News for Like 5 Minutes

The coronavirus pandemic can lead to an obsession with checking our phones. Here’s how to change your news habit.

Photo: Jose Luis Palaez/Getty Images

WeWe try to make sense of the biggest news event of our lifetime, it feels natural, even calming, to turn to one of our most trusted habits: the flick, scroll, click. It’s been there for us in times of anxiety, of boredom, of grief — the mindless, calming power of immersing ourselves in the internet.

But right now, what feels like a self-soothing act is anything but: Each shocking link ratchets up our emotions and gives the middle finger to the prefrontal cortex of our brains, which helps regulate our emotions and make sound decisions.

And we’re wired to keep that going. Our infinite scroll creates a dopamine loop — you seek pleasure, get a reward, repeat.

Don’t forget that feeds are also engineered by algorithms that deliver images and ads created specifically for us, conjuring the sense that each photo or news morsel — whether a video of dopes continuing to enjoy mimosas al fresco or a shady ad for immune-boosting pills — is highly relevant and urgent.

It’s not.

While we practice social distancing, we can keep a bit of distance from the news, too. Because news will always find a way to reach us. It will come through email, emoji-laden group text threads, peeks at homepages, conversations overhead in the produce aisle. And just like the 36-count of Shin Cup ramen packets my boyfriend and I recently ordered on Amazon, this news should be carefully rationed. You can be an informed, intelligent, and prepared citizen without spending six hours a day with your mouth agape in front of the news fire hose.

Right now, despite the chaos, we’re largely in anticipation phase. Updates and statistics will come at us for weeks and months, if China and Italy are any indication. We can’t afford to burn out now on the news, not when staying up to date will become more important in the future, and maintaining our mental and physical health will be even more crucial. Ignorance certainly isn’t bliss, but moderation can be a salvation.

Here’s what works:

Log out of social media

I find myself navigating to Twitter without realizing: a quick Command + T and a tap of “tw” and there’s a pile of news crumbs. But actually logging out of the site creates a necessary bit of friction — the next time you visit Twitter’s homepage, you’ll see this statement: See what’s happening in the world right now. That can help you make a conscious decision: Do I truly want to see what’s happening right now?

Think of it like social distancing for your brain. Just as in your physical space, you can be mindful of what you’re doing online in a way you never have before.

Go cold turkey

Our brains are amazingly adaptable, if not always effortlessly quick. One study found that it takes 66 days for a habit to become automatic, but tweaking your behavior today, even in a small way, creeps you closer to change. If you truly want to spend way less time on social media, as Catherine Price writes in GEN, delete the apps altogether. Eventually, the urge to check them constantly will fade.

Start a news schedule

Create a set time during the day to check for any updates, and do it in specific, deliberate steps: Look for news about your city, then your state, and then national and global updates. Mentally check these off as though they’re on a to-do list. You might even feel a sense of completion, an “okay, I feel updated now” as opposed to, “I’m gonna keep scrolling until something else major happens.”

Avoid being a messenger

On a recent phone call with my mom, I began listing everything that could happen soon, stopping only when she said she couldn’t sleep after watching the news the night before. If watching a handsome newscaster somberly delivering updates was doing that to her, she didn’t doesn’t need me rattling off possibilities at 100 mph in her ears.

Since everyone’s FaceTiming and texting like crazy, it’s natural to want to share anything new and earth-shattering with folks on the other end of the line. But be mindful that other people might not want to or be able to absorb every last tick-tock of the news. Starting a conversation with, “OMG did you see that there’s a surge in cases in the city next to yours?!” isn’t a kind icebreaker.

Put your phone to bed

I’m used to working from home, and one of my best tips is to leave your phone in the other room if you want to get stuff done. But I like to go one step further: I pretend my phone is taking a nap. I slide my iPhone into a crocheted coffee cup sleeve, but if I didn’t have that little pseudo sleeping bag, I’d literally shove my phone into a clean sock. Literally putting it out of sight — and unable to respond to a flick, scroll, click — gives me peace. (G’night little guy!)

March 2020 is already one of the strangest, most unpredictable months in history — and it’s only halfway over. We can still steady ourselves in small ways by monitoring what we’re absorbing, watching, and sharing. While it seems like almost everything is out of our hands, remember this: You can always control where your attention goes.

Journalist, playwright & author of DO IT FOR YOURSELF, a motivational journal. My newsletter encourages you every morning: https://bit.ly/2EysSdu

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