So Much News: Should You Turn It Off or Turn It Up?
BU sociologist Deborah Carr on the need for self-care when the news cycle can be so distressing
Do you find yourself turning off the news on the TV or radio more these days? Or skipping straight to the comics, arts, or sports section of the newspaper? Or do you go the other way—scrolling Twitter relentlessly for the latest about the hearings on the 2021 attack on the US Capitol and reading every story possible about last week’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the ongoing gun control debate, and the struggling economy?
For some people, turning off and tuning out the news has become necessary to their mental well-being. But others can’t get enough of it. BU Today spoke with Deborah Carr, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of sociology and inaugural director of BU’s Center for Innovation in Social Science, about the importance for people of striking a balance. Carr has written extensively on death and dying, bereavement, and family relationships over the life course.
With Deborah Carr
BU Today: A lot of people these days are struggling with balancing the news cycle with their own well-being. They know they need to pay attention and listen and watch and read, but at the same time they need a break. Have you felt any of those emotions yourself?
Carr: Yes, absolutely. I think we’re all there, not only because of the magnitude of the bad news and the level of distress, but the relentlessness of it. It’s going on four or five years, starting with the past presidency, through COVID, the protests, and now Roe v. Wade overturned. It’s just the brute force of the time period and the intensity. Like everyone else, I find it incredibly distressing, and I want to stay informed. But I also know we need to step away from social media and we need to engage in self-care. And we need to do something active to make ourselves feel like we are making a tiny dent.
BU Today: Is it important for people to recognize that? That it’s OK to check out for 24 hours, to miss the news for a day?
Carr: I definitely think some people feel it’s not socially responsible to turn it off. Or you feel it’s irresponsible to turn your back on people’s suffering. But I do think there is something important about self-care. We hear about cycling. There is this term “doom scrolling,” right? You’ll read something. Then you’ll comment. Then you’ll wait to see another comment. And some people can really get caught on a treadmill. Even if people can’t give it up for a whole day, give yourself blocks of time. Check your phone only three times, or what works for you. But doing it perpetually is not good. You do have to step away at some point.
BU Today: What are some other things people can do when it comes to self-care? You mentioned setting a schedule.
Carr: One thing people need to deal with is their emotions. Talk it through with other people. Use this as a conversation point. Another is to trigger some action, even just a small action, to feel less helpless. Because helplessness is definitely an emotion. To the extent that someone has the resources, make a small donation to a cause they support. Or volunteer. They could just provide emotional support for others. Just small steps to feel like you are doing something productive, all might make people feel better.
BU Today: Has there been research on the impact of the news cycle on people’s psyche?
Carr: There is lots of evidence in many fields of research that seeing other people suffer triggers distress. That’s something that is very much happening. One body of research that’s especially relevant here is the physiological reaction to stress literature. It shows that if you are repeatedly exposed to stressful experiences, stressful images, your cortisol levels rise. If you see one news story, you can deal with it, but repeated levels of exposure has a real physiological impact. It can wear on people’s physical health as well as their mental health.
BU Today: Can you explain what the cortisol level is?
Carr: Cortisol is considered the stress hormone. You know when something scares you, something creeps up behind you, you can feel it, you feel your adrenaline rise. That is adaptive in the short term: you feel your heart rate rise [and have the rush of adrenaline that helps to escape a dangerous situation]. But if you have that elevated heart rate, elevated rush feeling, over a long period of time, that can start to take a toll on physical health. And particularly heart health. I think that’s important to underscore. So if people don’t engage in self-care, it’s harder to parent well or to teach well or to have the capacity to do the things they need to do in a day.
BU Today: The timing of this, coming as summer begins, when people tend to relax and take a deep breath, means vacations might not be as relaxing as usual. Is that something to be aware of?
Carr: I think so. This can create a problem for summer vacations. They are supposed to be calm and fun. Family vacations can also bring people together who might not always see eye to eye on things. So it’s a double whammy. Sometimes family vacations are fraught, even under the best of circumstances, but especially if you are bringing together family or friends. Or if you are traveling to a red state and you are a blue state person, the vacation can intensify [the problem]. It’s adding these layers of stress.
BU Today: How do you manage your own cortisol level?
Carr: I exercise. I have social support. I do try to take these steps, like volunteering at vaccine clinics, or donating to Planned Parenthood. I recognize that I am fortunate to have the resources to do these things. But the other thing is to recognize that history is cyclical. I look at what my forebears experienced, the Depression, or World War II, and they managed to make their way through it. And I think that it’s important to recognize our ability to bounce back as individuals and as a nation. It might provide some people a bit of solace.