Right now, it can be overwhelming to consume too much news about all the awful things going on in the world: the war in Ukraine, nuclear-weapon threats, protestor deaths in Iran, catastrophic climate change, the list goes on. Is escapism the way to cope? Or is there a third way?
When I was travelling to then returning from Greece to attend my brother’s wedding (yes, lucky me, but also five flights in one go to get there, and catching a gastro bug on the way back), I travelled mainly on the airline Etihad. On the top right-hand corner of the screen in front of me, news headlines ranging from WTF to awful to chillingly violent flashed up every three or so seconds.
Strangely, the headlines missed out the last couple of letters or words – so it said, for example, ‘Shakira Is Set To Stand’ (what? stand where? I didn’t know about the tax fraud), ‘Putin Says He Will Dep’, and ‘Climate Change Is At A Poi’. Okay, I can guess the rest, Etihad, but if you’re going to overwhelm me with bad news, at least show me the whole headline.
I couldn’t turn this function off, so I tried not to look at that corner of the screen while finally watching Big Little Lies (love me some Reese Witherspoon). And I thought that actually, even as a captive audience member in a plane, why should I have to see all these headlines right now? When I was back home, and down with said gastro bug, I read everything I could about the likelihood of Putin using nuclear weapons, which didn’t help with my nausea. So I stopped reading any news. Instead I watched seven hours of The Bachelorette, and did Wordle Unlimited numerous times, while hugging a bucket.
Escapism can be a coping mechanism. Avoiding terrible global news can be protective, especially if you’re feeling fragile.
It’s not just when I’m sick that I need to tune out. I don’t usually disengage completely but, when a man who bragged about pussy-grabbing become the U.S President, I decided “not to look” during his time in office. I turned off the radio when I heard his voice, and avoided clicking on any news stories about him. I kind of felt bad about this, like I was a disengaged global citizen.
Now he’s been dethroned, but with Putin’s threats, climate change reaching a critical point (is Coke really sponsoring Cop 27?!), the deaths of protestors in Iran, the curtailment of abortion rights in the U.S., the far right now governing Italy, school shootings, and people getting Covid twice, etc, you can be forgiven for feeling it’s all too much to digest. It can feel overwhelming and, as one person, what can you really do about it anyway? What’s the point of falling into an online rabbit hole of despair? You might well want to look away, and avoid thinking about it all.
Here’s where escapism comes in. It’s a word that conjures up watching re-runs of Friends or the latest reality dating show, reading a romance novel, watching sports, playing video games, or doing anything that distracts us from life’s stressors. We all need that time to unplug.
Escapism can also be an attempt to distract oneself from unpleasant realities. We’re talking about escapism from world issues and current events, rather than from our own lives (that’s a whole other topic). This attempt to avoid engaging with the troubling realities of the world stems from humans’ hardwired desire to escape worries. Escapism can be a coping mechanism. Avoiding terrible global news can be protective, especially if you’re feeling fragile.
Even the Guardian, where I usually read the big-issue stories, acknowledges there’s a limit to the news we can consume. It recently ran a column by Georgie Harman, CEO of Beyond Blue, a not-for-profit working to reduce the impact of anxiety and depression in Australia. Harman writes about how many people are feeling overwhelmed by current world events. “Struggles that seem to stretch limitlessly into the distance hit harder. Ceaseless uncertainty can chip away at resilience.”
She points out that distressing world events “may strain a nervous system already overloaded by the ongoing instability of a global pandemic. If it seems like a lot to process, that’s because it is. Feeling overwhelmed with current events – big or small – is a natural reaction to the traumatic times we’re living through.”
And no, blocking out bad news doesn’t make you a bad person. “Limiting your exposure to bad news and turning off notifications doesn’t mean you don’t care about people’s suffering,” she writes. “In fact, taking time away from screens to do something restorative like spending time in nature, talking to a friend or playing with a pet, can be a vital act of self-replenishment that gives you the energy to be of service to others.”
But can tuning out from major world issues make you feel sort of dislocated from things? I sometimes feel this way – and wonder if this is a problem on a national and global level. How does escapism rather than engagement line up with a participatory democracy? Are we bad people for avoiding thinking about the suffering of Ukrainians? Is our use of escapism apolitical or even plain wrong?
Or is there a third way, of sorts? What if you learn enough (but not too much) about world events that matter to you, and take action on what you can? One way to combat a sense of powerlessness or helplessness might be to look at our own contributions to the world. Many of us are barely getting by financially ATM, but if you can, you could donate to a charity such as the Red Cross which is helping Ukrainians, or organisations helping women access abortion services in the U.S. Perhaps volunteer for a charity, write a letter to an MP, or go on a protest march. (I’ve been to climate-change and abortion-rights marches; yes, they’re unlikely to make a difference but at least Christopher Luxon might notice.)
One possible ‘third way’ to engage, then disengage, in a helpful manner is deciding to look only at curated content from a trusted news source at a specific time of day. And block out news on a certain topic if it stresses or triggers you too much.
Whanganui artist Krystal Waine thinks she’s found a balance. “I curate my [mostly Facebook, occasionally Twitter] newsfeeds so only Newshub posts show, to just get the bare basics. Then, if I want to find out more about something, I do an online search and read articles from what I consider neutral-ish agencies – Reuters, for example. Then I may deep dive if I feel I need more information on it. Or I think ‘okay got it’ and move on.”
“I don’t get too stuck into international news as it can be overwhelming. I know what’s happening in the US, UK, Europe etc but it’s bullet points: Putin nuclear, Ukraine war, Trump in trouble, US gun violence, climate change. It’s kind of like using two teaspoons of Raro in a glass of water instead of the whole packet – enough to get a flavour, but not enough to make me feel sick. My motivation in filtering is to reduce the noise and try to focus on salient information so I don’t become overwhelmed.”
“I focus on national issues because they’re more salient to me, and there’s a sense of being more empowered. I’m quite opinionated, and I like to have a voice on issues that may affect myself, and others around me. So keeping abreast of international news can be useful in predicting or understanding the impact of these events in New Zealand. Look at how Black Lives Matters trickled to New Zealand on Brown Lives Matters. Or the ‘Trump factor’: how we have Brian Tamaki jumping on the Trump rhetoric and stirring up ignorance.”
Dr Kevin Veale, a lecturer at the School of Humanities, Media and Creative Communication at Massey University, has some thoughts. “The avalanche of news, particularly dire things, makes us want to do something, but they’re vast, systemic issues that one person can’t influence, and that can lead to despair and burnout.”
“As far as online spaces go, curating your environments is a good idea: algorithms try to make us stressed because we impulse-click things and are profitable. Finding other things to do on devices online OUTSIDE of algorithmic environments is a good idea, so we can ‘habit replace’: reading comics or books on devices rather than going on Twitter or Facebook, etc.”
“And there are things we can do that have nothing to do with online spaces. Finding things you can do that are ‘observable progress’ can help, regardless of what that is. It could be learning a new skill, knitting, crocheting, gardening, volunteering somewhere.”
“We also need to remind ourselves that no form of activism or pursuing meaningful change can happen when we’re exhausted and run down, so resting and taking steps away from ‘The News’ isn’t just a good idea – it’s absolutely important for getting anything done.”