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Is Watching the News Harmful?

Imagine witnessing a real-life, horrific tragedy—an event so profound that it shakes every bone in your body. Fortunately, you emerge physically unharmed but cannot forget what you saw. Your mental images from the day will haunt your thoughts. Now, consider an alternative scenario: regularly watching the same tragic event unfold on the news. 

Which experience do you think has a more significant impact on stress levels?

It's a thought-provoking comparison, isn't it? While direct exposure to a traumatic incident undoubtedly leaves a lasting mark on one's psyche, a growing body of research suggests that incessantly tuning into media coverage of such events may have equally, if not more, detrimental effects on our mental well-being. 

Now, I say such events. Let’s be honest: If you were to watch the news, divide it into positive or negative news. I think even the biggest optimist among us would struggle to find more than 20% positive and of the 80% negative, I would wager most of that is fear porn to the highest degree having distressing impacts on us as we view it. But let’s put some research behind my hunch…

Recent studies, such as one examining the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, reveal a concerning correlation between extensive media exposure and acute stress levels. During the tragic events, Holman and colleagues from the University of California happened to be running a study that gave them data on the mental well-being of 5,000 people, some who were actually at the bombings themselves and others exposed to high amounts of news coverage of the bombings in the week after the event.

No doubt, being physically at an event like that would impact your mental well-being. What is mind-boggling is that there was another group that came off worse. The study revealed something about the individuals who were not physically present at the event but had the highest exposure to news in the week following it. They were the most likely to experience high acute stress and other negative outcomes.

More so than being in the vicinity of the tragedy or having a personal relationship harmed or losing their life. Which is bonkers! People were harmed more by watching the news, than actually being there. 

“I think people really strongly, deeply underestimate the impact the news can have.” - Holman

This raises a pertinent question: is watching the news good for us? The evidence suggests not. The research indicates that prolonged media exposure could turn what is an acute stress reaction into a chronic stressor, with far-reaching implications for mental and even physical health.

Now, you might be thinking in this study, the participants watched 6 hours of news per day, which is a substantial amount. And yes, this is true, but just one hour would have been damaging too. The 6 hours just amplified things. It's like the difference between smoking 30 cigarettes a day or 5. Both are killing you.

The impact of witnessing a tragedy firsthand is undoubtedly profound, but could the relentless replaying of distressing images on our screens intensify the distress, perpetuating a cycle of psychological turmoil?

The study alludes to the notion that the constant barrage of traumatic content through news outlets may contribute to prolonged rumination, intrusive thoughts, and heightened physiological responses—factors associated with stress-related health problems. And it doesn’t stop there, other studies have explored how the news contributes to traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. And if you don’t believe me, bbc themselves reported on it. It went as far as to say, ‘news coverage can even affect our physical health – increasing our chances of having a heart attack or developing health problems years later’.

The news has a negativity bias as fear and destruction attract views. The news, therefore has perverse incentives to prioritise certain topics over others which influences public perception. It keeps people hooked on needing to know what’s going on, playing on our innate tendencies to catastrophise and overprotect for survival. Repeated exposure here while harming us along the way could also eventually leave us desensitised and lacking empathy.

In the modern age of instantaneous news coverage and the omnipresence of media in our lives, across pings, dings, social media and a 24-hour news cycle that just will not relent, it's crucial to consider the downsides of regularly exposing ourselves to distressing events through our media consumption and screens. 

We have not evolved to cope well with this negative 24/7 reminder that loads of stuff we cannot control is really messed up. When you reflect on this, it becomes apparent that the impact on our health and mental wellbeing is greater than we initially realise.  

I have debated this topic with a few avid and regular news watchers and the main rebuttal I hear is that, yes, the news is upsetting, but it is the reality of life. You simply must know what is going on in the world. When questioned with ‘yes but why?’ the answer is usually something to the effect of ‘so you can do something to help’. 

My usual response to this is to list of 10 recent well-publicised tragedies (all of which I have heard about via the cosmic soup of modern existence, absolutely not via the news) and to ask the person, ‘what have you done to help?’. Asking this question has made me realise that for most people, being informed so they can “help”, actually means knowing where would be just a bit too dicey to book an all-inclusive and knowing enough so they can regurgitate someone else's narrative when the topic arises in conversation.

I am not saying you need to bury your head in the sand. I am saying that if you want to gain from some of the benefits of being “informed” so you genuinely can make a difference within your sphere of control. Tuning into the news TV channels is one of the worst ways to do this. 

Suppose you are interested in something or need to be prepared for an emergency, or it is necessary for you professionally. In that case, you can stay informed by researching the topic online and truly engaging in critical thinking. Read up on the subject, exploring what multiple sources and both sides of the argument report, form your own opinion and take actions based on your reasoning and just to the level that serves you. Taking on these matters like an obsessed sports fan following their every ebb and flow is often unhealthy.

A selective and targeted approach to ingesting the news is much better than being force-fed a single fear-based, negative narrative like you are a young gosling on a foie gras retreat. While watching the news programmes live on TV, you have no control over what you ingest.

Adverse outcomes are highly represented vs positive. It can leave you thinking that the world is falling apart and you and your family are next. Leading to distrust and segregation. 

When I first consciously tried to take a low/no-media diet, I felt much better for it. I felt more focused on what I could control and it gave me a greater sense of agency and a feeling that I could make an impact in what now seems like a simpler world. Yes, there will be some conversations where you won’t be so informed as a natural consequence, but there is beauty in that. As Robert Greene says, don’t speak unless you can improve the silence. You do not need to have an opinion about everything. Being sheltered from chaos can bring calm. Give it a try. 

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