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  • The Effects of News on Mental Health

    On April 15, 2013, two pressure-cooker bombs struck the 117 th annual Boston Marathon, killing three people, and injuring several hundred others. The terrorist attack received extensive international news coverage for months following the event. In the period two to four weeks after the bombing, researchers at the University of California, Irvine studied the effects of the media coverage on acute stress. The study found that 6 or more weekly hours spent watching news coverage of the bombing was linked to greater acute stress than being in the communities directly exposed to the bombing. The study also found that acute stress symptoms in Boston and New York were comparable, indicating that media coverage was effectively spreading collective trauma related to the bombings past the borders of the directly impacted communities.

    Staying caught up with the news has several benefits. Watching and reading the news can make you a more informed citizen, connects you to the world around you, and allows you to join larger discussions about current events. However, excessive news consumption has its downsides, too. The problem with news consumption is twofold: on the one hand, our brains have a series of cognitive biases that keep us engaged in the news, but also negatively affect our mental health, and on the other hand, news companies are incentivized to make sensationalized headlines and stories that play into our cognitive biases.

    Negativity bias is a phenomenon wherein people tend to gravitate towards more negative information and news. This bias explains why we often remember negative, traumatic, or disturbing information over more positive information. This also explains our fascination with negative news. One look at a major newspaper or cable news channel can make you feel like the world is ending. Stories about mass shootings, wars, natural disasters, and scandals can give off a warped perception of a world that is unrealistically dystopian. People are not only more likely to look for worse news, but distressing news is also more likely to stick to them and harm their mental health.

    Another bias that causes news consumption to be harmful is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to a tendency to actively seek out information that confirms our preconceptions, while disregarding information that may go against our point of view. This act of self-deception allows us to maintain viewpoints that we hold, even if they are misrepresentative or are not fully correct. In tandem with negativity bias, this can wreak havoc on mental health. If people are predisposed to view the world in a negative light, then confirmation bias encourages them to seek out news that may bolster that worldview and ignore news that paints the world in a good light.

    Plenty of research has confirmed that excessive consumption of the news is linked to stress, anxiety, and depression. A study from the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that participants who were exposed to 15 minutes of television news had increased anxiety levels when compared to a control group. And this is no surprise, given that news companies are incentivized to run stories that play into our biases, as those are the stories people are drawn to. And with 24-hour cable news coverage and social media feeds designed to push inflammatory and stress-inducing headlines, this negative news can sometimes feel inescapable.

    There are a host of mental health problems associated with watching the news. Fortunately, there are ways to combat this damaging cycle without completely severing your consumption of the news.

    Downsizing the amount of time you spend watching the news can be helpful. You are not required to consume excessive amounts of news, especially when it comes at the expense of other facets of your life. Turning off the news and reading a book, engaging in a hobby, or talking to friends can be beneficial to your mental health. Try to avoid having the news running in the background when you are trying to partake in other activities; even if you aren’t actively paying attention, the news can still bring down your overall mood.

    Besides decreasing the amount of time you spend watching the news, you can also change the news outlets you consume from. Less reliable, more opinion-based news outlets can leave you feeling stressed or anxious, without keeping you informed. Consuming media from trusted sources can help with this problem.  You may also want to try seeking out positive or uplifting news occasionally, to combat your negativity bias. One study from SUNY Albany found that Chicago residents who paid more attention to positive local news demonstrated a weaker relationship between depression and fear of crime.

    Another thing you can do to combat news-related stress and worry is change your mindset while consuming the news. Being aware of your biases while watching the news can help you better contextualize what you are watching. While watching or reading the news, take note of how much information you are learning, and how much of what you are consuming is merely confirming your opinions. When you inevitably hear negative news, try to put that into context as well. Ask yourself if isolated events are part of larger trends, and whether the problems presented are as catastrophic as they are made out to be. If you find that certain issues in the news make you feel hopeless, try getting involved with charities and organizations and responding with concrete action.

    While watching the news, monitor how you feel. If you begin to feel stressed or anxious, it may be time to take a break. Make sure you don’t let your newsfeed get in the way of your day-to-day life. If you find that certain events in the news are causing significant stress and worry, or you find yourself experiencing symptoms of depression, it may be helpful to get in touch with a therapist and seek professional help.

    AJB