Is Some Political Unplugging A Good Idea?

by JR Thorpe
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

You may have heard of the "unplugging movement," which celebrates its national day March 3-4 and encourages people to relinquish their ever-tighter hold on devices and connectivity for more analogue methods. (Newspapers? So 2000s.) But unplugging, in the context of the current overwhelming torrent of scandal that is the American political news cycle, has now taken on another meaning. We're now having conversations about what it means to unplug politically, and whether it can be a valid or responsible act in a time where national engagement is more necessary than ever.

Unplugging from politics doesn't mean quitting your senate seat to "spend more time with the family" after being caught doing something salacious on Tinder. It's the concept of taking time out and putting clear boundaries on your news consumption, rather than scrolling hysterically through the Washington Post's Twitter account, absorbing minute-by-minute updates on whether or not Jeff Sessions has performed a world medical first and exploded through the sheer force of built-up hypocrisy.

The good news (if there is any these days) is that a bit of unplugging seems to be an excellent idea for psychology, not only for distress levels but also for maintaining momentum and faith in other humans not to be terrible at every opportunity. Let's investigate.

The "Mean World Syndrome" Problem

There's one distinct benefit to unplugging, however briefly, from the political news cycle: it may make you more positive about the problems of the world in general, and human nature specifically. This isn't just a hopeful idea; it's a genuine scientific theory. The Mental Health Foundation, a UK-based charitable organization, noted in February 2017 that taking time out of a news cycle dominated by Trump and Brexit is likely necessary for maintaining mental health, because of the theories of a Hungarian-American academic who changed the way we think about mass communication:

"When George Gerbner, a pioneer researcher on the effects of television on society, established his 'cultivation theory,' he coined the term 'Mean World Syndrome' to describe what he had found. The more time people spent watching the news or 'living in the television world,' the more likely they were to believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Gerbner argued that people who watch more television tended to think of the world as an intimidating and unforgiving place and harbored more fear and anxiety about the world around them."

The "mean world syndrome" is bolstered by the the fact that humans have what's known as a natural "negativity bias." Psychological research has indicated that humans tend to show what researchers in 2008 called "the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information." If you look at this from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. To keep ourselves alive in an environment full of potential threats, it was valuable for humans to evolve to "pay more attention to negative stimuli," so that we gave more of our mental resources to potential mountain lions than pretty flowers.

When it comes to our news consumption, this works out in interesting ways. A 2016 study, for instance, looked at our tendency to do "multitasking" when it comes to absorbing news, switching our attention between television news and a "second screen," like Twitter. Negative tweets seen simultaneously alongside news broadcasts drew more attention than positive tweets, but they didn't detract away from news viewing overall. And in 2014, scientists found that even though people tended to say they preferred good news, they were much more likely to select depressing news stories.

The "mean world syndrome" theory isn't universally believed, though. The 2014 scientists thought that perhaps people are drawn to bad news through an inherent positive belief in the world, in the hope that faith in humanity will be restored or a solution will present itself. Either way, unplugging for a while may be a good thing for your hope for the future of the world in general.

Unplugging May Make Us Less Distressed & Jaded

The decision to unplug from the news cycle is a difficult one to defend in a world when the Russians appear to be colluding with half of the Republican party and Flint still doesn't have clean water. But there are also psychological concerns to be considered. Too much exposure to violent and negative news, an expert on psychological responses to news told the Huffington Post, is likely to prompt negative emotional responses that go beyond understandable frustration and anger into real, harmful distress. A fascinating and worrying report in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings bears this out: according to a survey of 4,675 U.S. adults, those who'd spent up to six hours a day looking at news of the bombings across both traditional TV news and social media (which often didn't crop or blur the most violent images) were intensely likely to show signs of acute stress and trauma. While being present at the bombing sites was a strong indicator of acute stress, monitoring the media obsessively afterwards was an even stronger one.

There's a long-standing conversation about the potential mental and behavioral affects of exposing children and adolescents to violence in the media, but the risk of desensitization among adults is a concern, too. After the brutality of the first half of 2016, the New York Times spoke with experts who were concerned about the potential for news media over-consumers to become jaded about bad news, whether from feeling overwhelmed or because nothing shocked them any more. Without a break to return to their own lives, they were responding to new outbreaks of violence and depravity with lowering levels of disgust and shock. Humans have a great ability to acclimatize to their environments, but that one isn't great for political activism or a sense of engagement in the future.

We Should All Have The Right To Disconnect

In the wake of the empowering anger of the Women's March, momentum is continuing: town halls are packed with angry constituents and calls to elected officials continue to spike. But there's a parallel conversation happening about the necessity for occasional seclusion to maintain passion and engagement in the political process. And that happens regardless of the situation — whether you're anti-Trump in America, fighting Brexit in the UK, championing refugee rights worldwide, or angry about one of the many injustices on offer in 2017. (There's no shortage of choice.) A court case in France may give us a template for talking about unplugging and why it's necessary to mental health and emotional engagement.

As of January 1, French workers now have the "right to disconnect:" the legal right not to check their emails outside of work hours. It's mandated as labor law because French labor experts were concerned that nobody was getting paid properly for incursions on their out-of-hours time, something that the French guard jealously (they have a 35-hour work week for a reason).

It's a useful idea for media consumption, too. When it comes to the news, we all have the right to disconnect, to recharge, to perform self-care and opt out or tightly manage the ways in which we participate in the news cycle. Evidence suggests that it's for our own good.