The Effects of Consuming Negative News

By Nitika Midha

This year, I found myself addicted to the news. I refreshed my feed god knows how many times a day to see the latest information about COVID-19, protests, police brutality cases, environmental disasters and politics in general. This overflow of news did take its toll on me. 

I started feeling hopeless about the world and found it hard to focus because I would always be thinking about the impact of the news that I had just consumed. 

It isn’t that negative news induced stress is new; we have been confronted with intense news stories, graphic images and videos in the past. But, the recent shift in how we consume our news and changes in the style of news can negatively impact our mental and physical health. Historically, news that incorporated heavy content was disseminated through the radio, TV or newspapers; channels that could be turned off easily. The rise of social media has made that choice harder, as we are regularly exposed to a never-ending supply of material.

This means we can never really escape from negative news online. We could unexpectedly encounter a tragedy as we log onto Facebook to see that video our friend tagged us in. Social media also makes it easier for us to compulsively scour the internet when we are confronted with a tragedy. We can find ourselves going down deep rabbit holes as we search for the latest news reports or that one more status update when news of tragedy reaches us. 

Today’s news is also “increasingly visual and shocking” according to Dr Davey, a psychology professor at the University of Sussex. The accessibility of mobile phones and social media has made access to bystander-captured media simpler. This means that we can easily access and watch unedited videos which show violence and brutality. We have seen this again and again with the videos of police and military violence against citizens that have emerged this year alone. 

This high-level of exposure can have traumatic effects on us as audiences. A 2015 study conducted by Dr Ramsden, a psychology lecturer at the University of Bradford, concluded that close to 25% of participants who viewed images and videos from disturbing news events, such as school shootings or suicide bombings, on social media reported symptoms consistent with PTSD. 

A 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association also concluded that those who kept up with the news reported negative mental health symptoms, including higher levels of stress, anxiety and fatigue. These mood changes, according to Dr Davey, can exacerbate our own worries and can also result in serious physical health problems related to increases in cortisol, a stress-related hormone.

So, why is it that although the news causes us stress, we continue to seek it out?

According to Hans Rosling, this occurs because of our “negativity instinct”. Our brains are 

programmed to seek out information that indicates threats. That is why we are more likely to pay attention to unsettling or frightening news instead of positive news. High engagement on serious news stories has meant that we often don’t hear about when things are getting better, and this gives us the impression that the world around us is just getting worse. 

While completely tuning off from the news is difficult, we can become more mindful about how we consume news.  

Dr Gallagher, a psychiatrist at the Ohio State University, suggests becoming mindful of how the news makes you feel. Do you feel empowered with this information, or do you end up feeling more pessimistic or stressed out? If it’s the latter, then you should consider taking a break by listening to your favourite music, going for a walk or talking to a friend. 

If you also find yourself always thinking that we are living in a time where we are surrounded by war, violence, corruption, disasters, you should try to take a more realistic view of history. Yes, there are still tragedies which confront our world today, and a lot of work still needs to be done. But, we also need to remember that step-by-step and year-by-year, the world is making social and scientific progress. Rosling suggests that remembering more news doesn’t necessarily equal more suffering and that good news and gradual improvements made globally are almost never reported. 

Understandably, turning the news completely off may be extremely difficult for you. If that is the case, you should consider limiting your news consumption to one block of time during the day. Maybe it’s 20 minutes before lunch, or as you have your morning coffee. At the very least, you should avoid the news right after you wake or before you go to bed. 

You should be informed about what is happening around you. But, that desire to stay updated shouldn’t harm your sanity or health.