There are addicts, and then there are addicts 2.0: those of us who can magically turn anything into a drug. Most recently, I became addicted to researching and consuming updates about a tragic news story. I won't go into detail about which story it was, as I already feel ashamed about consuming the victims' lives as though they were a serial novel, but I will say that I spent two days doing nothing but that.
I know that this behavior is not entirely my fault. Even prior to the age of clickbait, media outlets have always sought the sensationally horrific. Human beings are naturally more drawn to negative stories than to positive ones, if it bleeds it leads, etc. What's more, I think a lot of us are curious about our own deaths. In an age where we aren't frequently in contact with the dying process, we often look to accidents, disasters, and tragedies to reflect something about our own mortality.
But I also know that I, as an addict 2.0, am always looking to change the way I feel. In effect, I'm glomming onto anything that fucks with my neurotransmitters. This story, with its unfolding horror, had the capacity to alter my state of being—and I'll seek anything to escape myself, even in the most awful places.
"Internet addiction is... linked to dopamine changes," said psychiatrist Dr. Sree Jadapalle at the American Psychiatric Association's 2014 annual meeting . "Studies indicate that prolonged internet use leads to a reduction in dopamine transporters, the effects of which are stagnation of dopamine in the synaptic cleft." She added that the resulting excess dopamine causes stimulation of adjacent neurons, which may result in a euphoric effect. A state of reduced levels of dopamine transporters is seen in substance-use disorders and other addictive behaviors, she noted.
This would all be fine and good if there weren't an inevitable comedown. When I gorge on scary news stories, the high of compulsive clicking inevitably impacts my mental health for the worse.
"Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol)," said Rolf Dobelli in the Guardian, of the stress hormone that presents itself at elevated levels in patients with major depression and panic disorder.
For some reason, I'm always slow to feel the negative impact that a story has on my well-being until it's too late. I always think I can handle shit until long past the point that I can't. With this particular story, it wasn't until two days of obsessive reading that I realized I had traumatized myself. Then, suddenly I was raw, emotionally hung over, and feeling susceptible to a manifestation of mental illness that I can only describe as the haunting: a hybrid of anxiety and depression wherein I feel like something is watching me, judging me, reaching its spindly fingers into my stomach, chest, and throat.
I asked the British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, who has conducted research on the psychological effects of media violence, what impact my behavior might actually have on my own anxiety and depression.
"A lot," he said. "Our research has suggested that negatively emotive news can increase the likelihood of catastrophising your own anxieties and worries—even when the news items are entirely unrelated to those worries. It does this by making your overall mood significantly more negative."
So what does someone with depression and/or anxiety disorder do about the seemingly inescapable flow of news? Much has been written about abstaining from news entirely, or going on a media diet, though I'm not sure how sustainable that would be for me—nor do I want to be totally uninformed. When I think about imbibing no news, I'm confronted with a feeling of guilt, as though it is my obligation to know "what's going on."
But what really is going on? What does it even mean to be informed? Are human beings better people when we are "informed"? Does it increase our ability to help others, or does it only create the illusion of awareness?
"There's a view that certain transformation of news into entertainment has been a great kind of downfall of civic society, but that kind of blames the news as opposed to the lack of interest in news when it's not entertaining," said Amir Kamenica on the Freakonomics Podcast episode " Why Do We Really Follow the News?". Kamenica is co-author of the paper "Suspense and Surprise," which posits that a large component of our demand for news is purely for entertainment value.
There is also a performative element to news, now that so many people have become citizen journalists. Sometimes, when I see friends on Facebook posting political links with irate messages, my first thought is, You are preaching to the converted. I think this, because these are often the same friends who have asked everyone with differing viewpoints to defriend them. Perhaps I'm too cynical. Maybe they are shaping world views, history even, one Facebook post at a time. But as many outlets have pointed out post-election, that sort of "narrowcasting," or customizable news feeds like those on Facebook, tend to only reinforce what we already know.
I can't help but think that any self-righteousness on my part in sharing news this way would likely be shortsighted. After all, I'm using an iPhone to post my messages: a device made in factories with inhumane labor practices and suicide nets. Do we ever actually get to the bottom of all of the suffering we cause? Are we ever able to take in the full global picture of our actions, or, like Ishmael in Moby Dick, do we only see parts of the whale?
Perhaps if I were more self-righteous I would be more at ease. But I don't think there is any amount of information that is going to render me a person who causes no suffering. Thus, I'm no better than anyone else. Likewise, I'm not sure that a total information diet will save me from a mental health crisis, either. When I feel in my depression that something is watching me and judging me, it is always as much for what I know as what I do not know.