The Toxic Impact of Watching the News
These days, watching the news can feel like being in a disaster film. A global pandemic and political turmoil have inundated our feeds with headlines so dramatic that even a script-writer would dismiss them as over-the-top.
On one hand, it’s important to stay informed, especially in the face of unprecedented challenges to our society. But considering the overwhelmingly negative slant of news today, being knowledgeable about the world can come with a significant emotional toll.
How do we balance the need to stay informed with our own mental well-being? And how can we recognize the point at which bad news becomes more than just unfortunate, but downright toxic?
The Pessimist System
The news media has gone through a radical shift in the past century. News bulletins used to grace the screen on only a handful of channels and at specific times. Their reporters were impassive and objective, keeping a degree of journalistic distance from their stories.
But today, consumers have the option of literally hundreds of different news sources, each of which bring us a 24-hour stream of updates. Moreover, reporters are more likely to use fear-mongering to elicit our emotions and keep us in suspense.
This change is no coincidence. Media companies have a financial interest in making their stories as sensationalist as possible, in order to keep audiences engaged. Research shows that we’re especially prone to remembering negative memories, and are generally more sensitive to negative emotions. Media companies hijack this innate bias to keep us coming back.
The system, in other words, is rigged towards pessimism, and news junkies are getting hooked on a powerful drug called negativity.
The Emotional Consequences
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that chronic exposure to negative news can have a harmful effect on our mood. One study showed that just a 15-minute news bulletin can have a resounding effect on our stress and anxiety.
But besides the immediate impact on our mood, consuming negative news can also result in more subtle cognitive distortions, specifically in the way we view our own lives. In the same study mentioned earlier, participants were more likely to rate their own life stressors as worrisome after viewing a negative news bulletin.
These damaging influences can be so severe that they can culminate in something psychologists call secondary trauma. This refers to symptoms of trauma, including heightened anxiety, trouble sleeping, and depressive moods, which occur after witnessing traumatic events second-hand.
Again, secondary trauma can take the form of harmful distortions which stay with us. A person who views constant stories about a victimized group, for example, may begin to internalize a sense of hopelessness and feel less empowered in their daily lives.
The evidence is clear: negative news is not only distressing in its own right, but exacerbates already-existing stressors in our lives, and makes us more likely to worry about them.
Luckily, there are ways to counteract the negative influence of news without unplugging completely.
Consume news mindfully. Before you tune in, ask yourself: how do I feel right now? How do I expect to feel afterwards? If you notice that tuning into the news is harming you emotionally, make some changes. Consider listening to a podcast, which typically present news in a more even-handed ways, and removes visual stimuli, which can be especially distressing.
- Consume news purposefully. We can all resort to reading headlines as a form of entertainment, especially when we’re scrolling on our phones. Instead, try to think of the practical reasons for reading up on a certain issue. Consume your news on a need-to-know basis, and stop yourself when you feel that you’ve gained a sufficient amount of information.
- Practice self-care. If you feel the negative impacts of news, take some time for yourself. Helpful activities are one which involve tuning out from the rest of the world and focusing single-mindedly on a stimulating task. Playing music, reading a book, and watching a movie are all examples.
These strategies will help you stay informed while still maintaining your mental health. Remember: the news is supposed to benefit you, not harm you. Make sure it stays that way.