You’re scrolling through your phone when you see a super cool/shocking headline from your favorite trusted news source (“We Should All Be Eating Chocolate for Breakfast, Says Nation’s Top Nutritionist” or “Southern California Enters Yet Another Lockdown”). You, of course, send the link to your best friend (she loves Reese’s Pieces! She lives in San Diego!). Except there’s just one small problem—you didn’t read the actual article. This is “headlining,” the act of reading a headline and forwarding the story on to others without reading the article itself. And we’re all guilty of it.
Note: This is different to the ‘fake news’ phenomenon (i.e., when the story itself is false, with no verifiable facts, sources or quotes). With headlining, the story could be completely accurate. But because you didn’t read the entire article you A. have no context and B. don’t actually learn anything. (It turns out that the nutritionist was suggesting adding a teaspoon of cacao powder to our morning coffee, which isn’t quite the same as eating candy for breakfast. Oh, and your friend’s neighborhood is actually exempt from the lockdown).
Why is headlining so common? Look, headlines are meant to be attention-grabbing. But because our lives revolve around multitasking and speed (listening to a podcast while cleaning, consuming content in Tweet-size bites, etc.), we can be flippant when it comes to technology...and that was pre-pandemic. “Generally speaking, we live in a culture of connectivity and having the ability to get information at any time of the day on any topic influences our relationships and interactions on a regular basis,” explains psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee. “More so since the pandemic, we are lacking in social connection and so, we are more heavily reliant upon our electronic devices. Also, during times of stress or boredom, our weak spots and the behaviors we typically use to deal with these emotions naturally become more acute.” Cue sending your family chat multiple news articles per week.
Why is it so bad for us? For one thing, it’s not making us any smarter. “Our brains take time to absorb information and we can only understand things we take time to absorb,” cautions Dr. Forshee. But the risks of headlining go deeper than that. “[This practice] detracts from our ability to sit with uncomfortable emotions or cope with adverse feelings,” she tells us. Because reading a headline about something is not the same as learning about the topic itself and confronting the realities (however sad) of the event. Similarly, if you forward an article with the goal of hoping to influence the recipient (say, your uncle Ron who doesn’t believe in climate change), then headlining prohibits you from learning how to assert your opinion, beliefs and point of view in a healthy way. You would be better off reading the actual article and then using what you gleaned to form a better argument. Bottom line: You won’t learn anything (about the world or about yourself) just from the headline.