The Challenge: Especially in the past few months, we have been inundated with tragedy and conflict on the news.
The Science: Research shows that watching the news has an effect on how we approach our lives and our well-being.
The Solution: For healthy news-watching, start your day off by not turning on the news.
A defining feature of our round-the-clock world is constant access to information. Whether it is a never-ending stream of inbox messages, compelling Internet headlines, or 24-hour cable news, there is no shortage of supply. Especially when it comes to “breaking news,” more often than not, the story that we see is not good news.
Another defining feature of our round-the-clock world is often feeling overwhelmed by stress. In fact, research shows there is a direct link between exposure to information and feeling overwhelmed by stress.
For example, a 2014 poll from Robert Wood Johnson and NPR revealed that one of the biggest contributors to daily stress is watching the news – this fact was endorsed by nearly half of Americans who reported high stress.
What the news does to us
So, what are the effects of watching negative news on our stress and well-being? For one, the type of news we see or hear affects our mood. For example, a study comparing the effects of watching 14-minute news bulletins that were either positive, neutral, or negative found that those who watched the negative news bulletin reported increases in anxiety and negative mood.
Similarly, a recent study found that people watching even three minutes of “positive news” compared with three minutes of “negative news” at the beginning of the day reported a 27% greater likelihood of having a happy day 6-8 hours later. Just three minutes of news stories had this effect, which is the same amount of time that it might take you to read this article.
How is it, though, that the stress response of those watching negative news can be so high? News pieces are sensationalist. People are shown graphic images repeatedly – triggering their brain’s stress response.
There are times when tragic news stories completely capture our consciousness. Think back to when you first saw images on TV of September 11th, 2001, for example, and recall your heightened state of awareness. The recent Paris bombings are another example. Researchers who studied the effect of watching the Boston Marathon bombing news coverage in 2013 on stress levels found something interesting. Viewers who immersed themselves in news and social media in the days following that event (6+ hours/ day) reported more symptoms of acute stress than people who were actually present during the bombings.
Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, who studies the effects of media exposure on stress has often observed that sensationalized coverage of negative events has harmful effects for viewers. As TV channels and media outlets compete with one another, sensationalizing stories is part of the business. Not all news stories require the same level of graphic or sensationalized coverage objectively. Another effect is that sensationalized depictions of news lead people to believe that far-off places are not safe. Fear can then shape their thoughts and subsequent actions.
So, how can we best handle this constant stream of sensationalized coverage of new events happening in the world?
The answer, according to experts in the field, is to avoid over-exposure to negative news. In fact, they recommend that we should start our day, whenever possible, by NOT watching negative news. We have seen the results from experiments with social scientists–even a small exposure has an impact on your mood, stress levels, and how you might approach the rest of your day.
These suggestions are general guidelines, of course. Two main points are worth stating here before you cancel your cable subscription:
- Responses to negative news can be different from one person to another. Some people claim that distressing news does not affect them negatively. Whether or not the research would support this claim, the take-home point is to know yourself and what your personal limits are for exposure. When there is a “breaking news” story that has captured your attention, know when it is time for you to distract yourself from what it is you are taking in.
- With TV monitors in so many public places (yes, even at the gas pump), we can’t always control the news we are exposed to. But we can always choose where we direct our focus. And, again, it is up to us to know when to tune out.