It is well accepted that the food we put into our bodies affects our physical health, and there is a plethora of advice to guide our choices. And yet we give nothing like that much attention to what we are feeding into our minds, and the impact this may have on our mental health.
Modern technology has given us access to information at a level unprecedented in human history. Between newspapers, magazines, books , TV, radio, smart phones, computers, poster ads and billboards, we are bombarded at every turn. Every single piece of information has to be processed by our brain, and in turn influences the way we perceive the world, our life and ourselves. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this increasing information overload is being matched by sky-rocketing rates of mental health issues. Our poor old brains were never meant to deal with the volume and complexity of information that they are subjected to today.
Although we are often most aware of our conscious reaction to incoming information, it is important to remember that this information is also processed by, and affects, our subconscious mind. Our primitive survival brain is very, very good at spotting danger. Unfortunately it is completely lousy at geography and maths. When we watch news footage of a terrorist attack on the other side of the world, our survival brain has difficulty distinguishing that from a more immediate threat in our local neighbourhood. Similarly, when our survival brain hears about a plane crash it doesn't take into account the statistics that reinforce the scarcity of plane crashes. It doesn't calculate the number of days when no crashes occur. It simply registers that planes crash. When faced with a bombardment of information about risks and dangers, our survival brain processes much of that information as if it is an immediate, imminent or on-going threat to ourself.
As social creatures we are hard-wired to keep an eye on our place in 'the tribe'. Even if we are not consciously aware of it, we are continually monitoring other people's reactions to us, seeking signs of approval or disapproval that may boost or threaten our social position and relationships. The presence or absence of 'likes' on our social media posts taps into this social barometer, and can produce surprisingly strong emotional reactions as a result.
This social function in our brain also compares our performance to others, to keep track of our 'status' within our social network, and to gauge the relative success or failure of our actions. These intrinsic social measures are a vital part of our social intelligence, but they can also be the basis of gnawing self-doubt, low self-esteem and feelings of failure. If we have prolonged exposure to carefully edited and air-brushed images of high-achievers, our social brain can be left feeling inferior and inadequate. Research has suggested that viewing the curated highlights of other people's lives on Facebook can lead to increased anxiety and a lower quality of life.
Many of us were raised with the ritual of watching the nightly news, and as a result, place a high value on staying informed about current affairs. There are a few important points to make here. Firstly, watching the news for 30 or 60 minutes once a day is quite a different media diet to a steady stream throughout the entire day. The way our parents consumed news was very different to our 24-hour news cycle.
Secondly, we can tend to link staying informed about current events with being a good global citizen. In some cases we can feel that our attention acts as a contribution: that by knowing and caring about a problem, we are somehow acting as part of the solution. Along similar lines, we can feel that tuning out to the news is a sign of indifference or denial of the problems. However, hearing endless stories of human suffering can leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless.
In his book, The Humans, Matt Haig makes this observation:
When you watch the news and see members of your species in turmoil, do not think there is nothing you can do. But know it is not done by watching news.
When we follow the rolling coverage of disasters and tragedies it doesn't make one iota of difference to the people involved. Neither, to put it bluntly, does our sympathy, outrage or concern. Only action helps: consider whether it may be more useful to devote time and energy to writing letters, fundraising, lobbying, protesting, donating or volunteering instead.
Lastly, when we think about the impact of our media diet on our mental health it is important to recognise that products like Facebook, Buzzfeed and Twitter are designed to be addictive. Make no mistake, the designers of websites and apps are tapping into all the latest neuroscience findings on human behaviour and using them to lure us into spending increasing amounts of time on their products. 'Like' buttons, rewards for high scores, pop-up alerts and the constant novelty of a news feed hit our dopamine sweet spots, creating cravings for more and more to get the same buzz.
Even after that long rant about the negatives, I'm not saying that all media is bad or that we should erect personal cones-of-silence to block out the world. But in the same way that we can make more conscious and healthy choices about what we feed into our bodies, perhaps we can make more considered decisions about what we feed into our minds.
There is certainly no universal formula for a healthy media diet. Everyone has to find the mix that works best for them, and I would certainly encourage you to experiment by making changes and noticing how they affect you. The best and simplest measure for the impact of your media diet is to notice how it makes you feel. When you finish checking social media, browsing a glossy magazine, watching a heart-rending movie or viewing the news, how do you feel? If the answer is happy, invigorated, motivated, connected, compassionate or thoughtful, that's great! If, on the other hand, you notice that your media consumption leaves you feeling inadequate, guilty, distressed, lethargic, anxious, depressed or overwhelmed, you might consider a change.
When exploring changes to your media diet, here are a few things you might like to consider:
Easy access to information has seen it creep into more and more of our time. Do you have the TV on in the background? The radio in the car? Are you scanning your news feed or social media every time you have a spare moment? Consider the accumulated impact of all this information, and where it might be healthy to cut back.
The mode of information
Do visual images leave you feeling more emotionally raw than the written word? Does listening to the news on the radio affect you differently to watching it on TV? Is an audiobook more relaxing or more engaging than reading? Notice the effect that different modes of information have on you.
Timing and frequency of use
Notice whether media information affects you differently depending on the time of day (ie. the magazine that motivates you in the morning might leave you feeling inadequate at the end of a tiring day). Consider the impact of the amount of time you spend on one information source; a quick flick through a magazine might be fine, but an hour of air-brushed perfection might wear down your self-esteem. Consider whether it is healthier for you to choose dedicated times to engage with information compared with alerts or alarms that interrupt you with frequent updates. Finally, think about the frequency of consumption; how does checking the news, email or social media once a day make you feel, compared to frequent engagement?
Content matter and underlying messages
Notice the extent to which your mood and mental state is affected by different content. Be aware of how particular content matter or messages can push your emotional buttons, and choose how and when to engage with content that is confronting or difficult. This isn't the same as practising denial or avoidance: it is about consuming this content in a thoughtful and healthy way.
A balanced media diet
Consider whether a balanced diet of information is helpful to you. Do you need to subscribe to 'good news' websites or inspiring blogs to balance the overwhelmingly negative bias of the mainstream media? Would it be helpful to read funny cartoons or watch cute kitten videos after reading a tragic memoir? Consider ways that you can maintain a healthy balance.
Do you need an occasional media fast?
Would it be beneficial to give your brain a break from the constant input of information. Can you designate some media-free time once a day, once a week or once a month while you lie in a hammock, exercise, cook, craft, do a jigsaw, etc?
I'd love to hear your ideas on what a healthy media diet looks like!