Today is R U OK? Day, a chance to check in with your mates and those close to you and see how they’re doing. It’s also a time to consider how you can improve your own mental health with good habits.
A noticeable change has happened in the small world of my Twitter feed: there has been a marked drop in people live-tweeting Q&A. The topical farrago of frustration and dunking on politicians has seemingly finally lost its novelty.
Q&A, for those who don’t know, is a weekly panel show where guests are invited on to chat about relevant news issues. That’s the modus operandi, anyway. What usually ends up happening is wildly incompatible guests are brought in to snipe at each other in frustration and contempt, while host Tony Jones bathes in an air of smugness, despite being the face of a routinely exasperating television exercise.
You’ve probably got your own version of Q&A: it might be a reality TV show you hate, or a trashy news site that loves an eye-grabbing headline (generally something taken out of context, or just straight-up racist), or some self-righteous site’s bad-faith collection of receipts (“here’s why X is a BAD FEMINIST, here’s why X is CANCELLED”).
We already know how social media is poorly affecting our mental health in regards to, say, self- image or trolling and bullying; and we know that overwhelmingly negative news media is making us anxious and fearful. You no doubt feel this way a lot of the time, if you engage with any amount of world news. Disreputable outlets will rely on its readers to skim and react, meaning a greater dependence on attention-grabbing content, and we’ve all been guilty of getting suckered in.
When I last worked full-time in an office, I would start my day with a cup of tea, a check-in with the boss and, for whatever reason, scrolling through a famous conservative journalist’s regular column alongside checking emails and Facebook. I would spend an inordinate amount of time scouring these posts for their latest (wretched, ill informed) opinions. To what end? I lied to myself and others by citing Sun Tzu (“Know thy enemy”, who are you fooling, Lisa?); being informed, I felt, was the best weapon against ignorance, bigotry and new gross trends in media.
I felt that I needed to be aware of what people I disagreed with were saying to the wider public. This is true to an extent, because I didn’t and don’t wish to live in some lefty pinko bubble, but I was not going in the right intentions.
This was an ego stroke, plain and simple. I was making myself feel smarter and better than the columnists (even if I am- I’m not a confident person, nor am I the pinnacle of perfect behaviour, but at least I’m not a fucking white supremacist); I was confirming my own ideas that I was more noble and intelligent than them, and that gave me that wee hit of moral authority. But it was based in rage, and loathing, and perverse condescension. The columnist was knowingly farming out lies and bigotry for clicks, and I was falling into the trap- whether I agreed with them was irrelevant by the time I was already done with their site.
It was difficult- and still is- to manage boundaries when it comes to hate-reading in a broad way. I still struggle with maintaining a balance, knowing what is and is not essential: I no longer watch clips of Donald Trump, for instance, that pop up in my social media: I need no further evidence of the endless depths of his cruel swindling and garbled, hateful nonsense. What am I learning from watching yet another video where he says something profoundly bigoted yet somehow comically stupid? I do not need further convincing and there is no “other side” to that argument.
Where I have been able to simply cut out some things, other things have not been so easy: if I happen to spot, say, a video of some famous awful YouTuber that everyone on the internet dunking on, I want to be in on the joke. Even though I don’t imagine I will get anything but frustration and/or contempt from watching it, I want to be able to tick that reference off. Why? So that I can “get” an internet joke that everyone dogpiles on for three days, before it disappears completely? I’m learning to not care about knowing everything. I don’t have to read the whole
Of course, we’ve all been in the situation where, say, a headline is not befitting to an article- you read it and discover it wasn’t as inflammatory as the introduction made it out to be (kind of like how Crazy Ex Girlfriend seems like kind of a mean-spirited, stereotypical title for an actually quite good show); it’s tough to predict whether something is going to help or hinder you. It helps to consider what you want from this content: do you want an unemotional laugh at it, like when you watch a so-bad-it’s-good horror movie from the 80s, or do you want that thrill of moral superiority?
It must also be said that “hate-reading” is not simply engaging with things that make you feel negatively. Indeed, sometimes those negative feelings are useful; in between working on this very piece, I am reading about Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison’s soulless vendetta against the Tamil family recently deported to Christmas Island.
It’s an issue I care deeply about, and I want to know how it is playing out. I am saddened and outraged, but I feel that I can channel this pain into useful action. The distress I feel when engaging with stories related to the issue is not for nought; I can do something with this anger and information, it bolsters my determination to rally for the cause. It pumps me up full of motivation to act, protest. I need to know what is being done in my name, especially.
Engaging with anything simply for a short-lived feeling of superiority- or simply to decry it- isn’t really engagement at all. It’s the briefest of tapping into some of our worst emotional reactions, for profit. What good does it do to support media or people that stoke the flames of distrust, bigotry or morally questionable journalistic ethics? In the end, whatever we tell ourselves, the reasoning results in the complicit support of the new and grotesque media landscape that threatens good journalism and media. After all, clicks are clicks.
Outside of the business side of things, it’s just bad for your health. Reading the monstrous things that humans are writing about one another is so demoralising, and seeing how much prominent bilge-peddlers are paid to spread fear, misinformation and bigotry is deeply depressing. It becomes debilitating to one’s own work and self confidence, especially those of us working in media.
I hope I don’t sound sanctimonious. I still occasionally click on something I know will make me mad, when my perverse curiosity gets the better of me, or I want that small jolt of righteousness. But I’m now aware of the small changes I can make towards both the dominance of bad faith media, and my own mental and emotional wellbeing: don’t click. Scroll past the hateful drivel; support media you respect by sharing work you enjoy, and paying for it if you’re able. Think about articles before you share it with your followers: is this useful? Or are we just going to be a giant, angry mess?
In this comedy sketch, from Robert Webb and David Mitchell’s That Mitchell and Webb Look, summarises the phenomena, in a slightly different context, in a skit where the characters are creating the TV show The Apprentice:
WEBB: “So it’s coverage of idiots behaving idiotically for an audience of idiots.”
MITCHELL: “It’s not just an audience of idiots. There’ll be a lot of other people who flatter themselves they’re watching with a sense of irony and in some way haven’t been taken in.”
WEBB: “Remind me, how do these ironic non-idiots show up in the ratings?”
MITCHELL: “They show up the same, my friend. They show up just the same.”Image: Getty Images