Op-Ed: Tapping out

Sunday, March 6, 2016 - 8:12pm

When I first began filling out required health and emergency contact forms to send to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, my mom said to me: “Don’t just put your dad and me as emergency contacts.” Seeing the confused look on my face, she went on to explain that of course she would like me to put her as one of my emergency contacts, but given that I was going to be in Michigan, relatively far away from her and my dad, who both live in California, they could be of very limited help in some situations. Someone else echoed a similar sentiment a little while later, when they advised us to have someone in Michigan for the school to contact in an emergency, as parents want to help and will try to help, but may end up feeling hopeless and all it may do is scare them.

In many ways, this made sense, and this thought resurfaced in my mind a few weeks ago. Trudging through the streets of Ann Arbor on my way to the library downtown, excited to see Tiffany, a girl I tutor, I glanced at my phone and saw an alert from a news station in my hometown that read “Breaking: Child hit, killed by car in Richmond.” My natural reaction was, of course, sadness. And for the rest of the evening, I kept feeling an underlying sadness, which seeped into the time I always looked forward to with Tiffany. That was when I knew I needed a break from the 24-hour news cycle that has become all too prevalent with the advent of the smartphone and apps that give us access to news at the touch of a button. I needed a break.

This moment allowed me to reflect on how inundated I was with information. Partly because I had been working at the Daily and knowledge of all current events seemed imperative, I subscribed to updates from five different news outlets: my hometown news station (KTVU), CNN, The New York Times, MLive.com and BBC. In fact, a few weeks prior to this moment, I had been subscribed to updates from the Huffington Post as well. But walking back from tutoring that day, I realized I was still subscribed to too many news alerts. Do I need to be alerted by CNN, The New York Times and BBC that Hillary Clinton won the South Carolina primary? Now that I was living in Michigan, why did I need to know there was a crash on the Bay Bridge and there was approximately a 30-minute backup getting on to the bridge? Similarly, was it necessary or healthy for me to know about every shooting that goes on in my hometown?

Before I go further, I want to stress that I’m not saying I want to be ignorant of what is going on in the world. Ignorance isn’t bliss. Ignorance is ignorance and I don’t want to be ignorant. In fact, one of the advantages of having easy access to so much information is that you can stay informed, understand what is going on in the world and participate actively in shaping the world. But I believe there is such a thing as being too informed — something I only fully realized recently. We can be bombarded by so much information and have the ability to keep ourselves up to date in every sense of the way.

A constant stream of information isn’t just an option; it’s assumed that we want it this way. On my iPhone, unless I actively turn off notifications, I receive updates from every app that I download. This constant stream of information is also bad for our health. Studies have shown that having access to all of this information at the tip of our fingers can actually increase stress. As an excessive worrier, I will do every little thing I can do to reduce my stress and improve my health.

I have since turned off notifications for the majority of news apps, forcing myself to pare it down to the most relevant news sources. There is something to be said for proximity to an event. Sometimes, it is better not to know everything going on in every corner of the Earth at every minute, especially if you have no ability to do anything about what has occurred. It is important to know the rates of pedestrian-car accidents, as it may help pass legislation, but learning that someone was hit by a car approximately 3,000 miles away from you is sad and that’s just it. When I read it, I grieve for the child, the family, the life lost. But that is all I can do. I feel helpless — helpless and stressed — just as a parent would as their out-of-reach child’s only emergency contact. Sometimes you need to tap out before you get tapped out.

Anna Polumbo-Levy is a senior editorial page editor.