The Mental Health Effects Of News Media Consumption

Graffiti war art in Istanbul, Turkey..
An empirical and philosophical angle on an eerily relevant topic. (Photo: Istanbul, Turkey)

Like much of the world, I was caught off guard by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a former poly-sci major, I did not expect an event like this to happen under such unequivocal terms. This week, I had some time off work and have been following the conflict in-depth. While I cannot materially impact the situation, my thoughts and best wishes are with the Ukrainian people as they defend themselves against foreign aggression. I understand that we are all connected, especially in an era of globalization, mass media, and nuclear weapons. My hope is that cooler heads prevail and that a peaceful, lasting resolution to the conflict is reached sometime in the near future. The following reflection was born, not from this conflict, but from my general observations during the last few years about the merits and pitfalls of regular news consumption. I am going to continue following the Ukraine crisis, and people who have not done so would do well to get informed.

Studies On News Consumption And Mental Health

Research conducted by Graham Davey, a professor of psychology at Sussex University, found that watching “negative TV news” correlated with sadness and depression (source): “Our studies also showed that this change in mood exacerbates the viewer’s own personal worries, even when those worries are not directly relevant to the news stories being broadcast.” Davey attributes this effect in part to today’s news being “increasingly visual and shocking.”

Per The American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey, conducted in 2017, 56% of adults said that following the news caused them stress (source). (Mind you, this was before the pandemic and recent developments in Europe.) According to Annie Miller, Master of Social Work and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, consuming the news can activate the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). This response is associated with stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, and can trigger the onset of physical symptoms, like “fatigue, anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping” (source).

Another study conducted by British researchers during the heat of Covid found that “media usage is statistically significantly associated with anxiety and depression on the GAD-7 and PHQ-9 scales with excessive media exposure related to higher anxiety and depression scores” (source). This correlation was especially true in the case of social media consumption.

The News, Mental Health, and Evolution

Too much news is bad for mental health because the news, as we well know, is skewed toward negativity. This isn’t because news people are bad, even if they profit from this model, in general, and specific crises, in particular. Rather, the point of news is to communicate information of interest and relevance to a large number of people. Positive situations and developments often don’t make the news because they don’t need managed. The threat posed by negativity, on the other hand—wars, crime, economic crises— requires ongoing attention to neutralize. Our brains evolved to focus on problems, in the interest of self-preservation, which is why we generally find the news to be so interesting—at least more so than the positive alternative.

That said, too much news can create a skewed portrait of reality. A lot of the news is about events relatively distant from us that we would have no way of knowing about without modern technology. Just as our brains evolved to focus on problems, they did not evolve to focus on ones that were socially and geographically distant from us.

To Pull Or Not To Pull The Plug?

I’m a bit of an information junkie. There were times I had to reign in my consumption of news because it was affecting my mental state. And I realized that I was not in a position to materially impact those situations for the better. This happened during the Syrian Civil War in 2017, an issue quite close to my roots that I had a lot of familiarity with. After several months of following it on an almost daily basis, I decided I needed to pull the plug because it was taking a toll. I arrived at a similar conclusion last year when daily monitoring of financial markets via CNBC and other cutting-edge apps was subtracting from my peace of mind. That said, no two people, media, issues, and situations are alike. Everyone has to arrive at the best contextual course of action for themselves.

In sum, being abreast of what’s going on in the world is important. But the positive good of information and knowledge must be weighed against something even more important: our mental health.

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