I can’t stomach the news anymore.
It makes my head spin. I weep often, especially when stories are about tragedies involving children.
For many years I worked as a daily reporter covering hard news. I often did my job without digesting what hard news actually meant a lot of the time — emotionally impalpable happenings.
Now I know what it means. Truly.
There was a moment recently when I realized what a difference being disconnected made to my peace of mind. I was vacationing with my family in Cuba and hadn’t read or watched the news for a week. My phone was turned off the entire time, which meant I was disconnected from the constant news stream on my social networking channels. It was only when our plane was landing in Toronto that I remembered its existence. During our week away, I dipped my feet in the ocean, swam laps and ran in the sand. I didn't think about my phone for a second.
We enjoyed lazy, carefree days. When our two and-a-half year-old napped, my husband would relax on the patio with a cigar, while I breezily devoured beach reads, eventually drifting off to sleep myself.
Days after our return from Cuba, I rarely checked my phone, swearing to stop the 24 hour news cycle that plagues and haunts me.
But old habits are hard to shake.
Within a couple of weeks I was once again unconsciously checking my phone. I say unconsciously because it is a habitual thing — roll over in bed in the morning, reach for the phone and scroll through emails and updates; idly flip through it again with toast and coffee, check it before leaving the house, just in case.
Stop it! I screamed to myself. Just stop it.
There was a time when the news happened in bite-sized increments. It seemed more manageable to have the morning news and the six o’clock news instead of news by the minute, all day long.
Our brains, or my brain at least, cannot process the excessiveness of information. There is too much sadness, alarm and terror to be constantly bombarded by it.
Recently, I’ve begun to see my Facebook feed in a darker light. Sometimes amid the happy-faced kid snapshots, my account seems like an ongoing obituary (both famous deaths and not).
So, I'm trying again to reduce my media exposure. Instead of reaching for my phone first thing, I leave it alone for an hour or two, except to check the time. Today, I used my phone to send a quick photo to my husband. It was of our son hiding behind a giant picture book, with only his arms popping out of the sides.
“Look, mommy!” he exclaimed.
“I am a book with arms!”
I burst out laughing and snapped a picture.
Sending it, I ignored my emails and my Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Then my dog Maggie and I went for a run. The only thing on my mind out there was how ridiculously frigid it was, and what a terrible idea it was to be running outside. The front of my head ached and I couldn’t feel my legs. We hurried home, and I was just about to post a status update on Facebook warning other outdoor runners to stay inside when a steady stream of links to the same story appeared on my newsfeed.
Soon, I was weeping.
The posts were about a three-year-old boy named Elijah who had wandered out of a North end Toronto apartment building at about 4 a.m.
There was a grainy black-and-white image of Elijah, screen saved from video surveillance in the lobby of the building, looking up at the front door. He appeared to be contemplating whether or not to open it.
The little boy was found six hours later in between houses about 300 metres from the apartment without vital signs. He was in the snow, wearing only a T-shirt, boots and a pull-up diaper. Meanwhile, Environment Canada had issued an extreme cold weather alert in Toronto, with temperatures dropping to -20C early Thursday morning, with a wind chill making it feel like -28.
My heart broke wide open and I stood sobbing in my kitchen. I thought I was going to be sick.
Please, please save him, I said to somebody, nobody, to anybody.
I tried to work but could think of nothing else. People everywhere, parents and non-parents, were imagining the unimaginable, wishing, hoping and praying for this little boy. This is somebody’s baby, and we all know how easily it could be our own. We understand that within seconds, the course of one's life can change. It is impossible to turn off the news, to not search for updates, to stop thinking of that poor child out there all alone in the cold — impossible to not keep begging for good news to happen. Then, just as I saved this post, I received an update.
Hospital efforts to save Elijah were unsuccessful. The little boy has died.
While influenced by his doting parents, our son is also the product of his pop-culture surroundings. Circulating his orbit is an enormous selection of TV shows, movies, advertisements, products and books, each masterfully designed to sway his young, impressionable mind. And there is another force proving even stronger — his friends.
Highly social creatures, my son’s peer group of wobbly-legged toddlers have a huge impact on one another.Take the daily naptime ritual at daycare: how is it possible that a dozen or so children successfully nap in the same room at the same time every day without giggling or bouncing around? It is peer pressure, cut and dried. When everybody else is sleeping, your kid will, too, because there’s nobody left awake to play with.
A 2012 study in Current Biology confirmed that toddlers succumb to peer pressure. According to the findings, these cherub-cheeked innocents are likely to copy a behavior if they see three other toddlers doing it. This brings us back to the zippy racecar movie, Cars.
My son’s friends are the main reason he knows most of the crew from the famous animated Disney/Pixar film, and they are the catalyst for the obsessive Cars-viewing tear he has been on lately.
“That’s Mater and Doc Hudson and Lightning McQueen,” he says, all big glowing eyes.
“Huh. Where are you learning this stuff?”
He doesn’t answer. He isn’t quite sure, but I am. It's mob mentality.
The study found that both chimps and toddlers rely on crowd mentality to help shape their decisions, whereas the solitary orangutan does not. Consider this in adult terms. Mob mentality is why, just a few years back, every other person bought a Canada Goose jacket. Suddenly wearing fur had gone from complete social suicide to socially trendy in the snap of a few celebrity photographs. The instant a crowd of influencers — think Emma Stone and Claire Danes, among many others — began sporting these coyote fur-trimmed jackets, suddenly everyone else was hitching a ride on the trend.
As a parent, this freaks me out. I am cautious — and nervous — about the power others can have over us, but also aware that it's impossible to live in a bubble. Do you remember the book order forms from Scholastic? A new one arrived in my son’s daycare bin and recently he was leafing through it.
“Who's that, mommy?” he asked, his index finger pointing to a run-of-the-mill looking snowman.
“That’s a snowman. You know that.”
“Yes, a snowman.”
“No it’s not, mommy.”
“No, that’s Olaf from Frozen.”
“Yes, mommy, it is.”
Indeed this was a surprising bit of information. It made me wonder what else the kid knows that I do not. Seems quite a lot. The other night my son and I were snuggling before bedtime when he began singing a song I’d never heard before.
“You sing it, mommy,” he said.
“What is it? I don’t know that one.”
“The Frozen song, mommy. You sing it!”
And so it goes — the primary influencer becomes the influenced.
I’ll leave it to you to figure out who is likely going to be schooled in some nauseating Frozen jingles in the very near future.