When asked why we watch the news, most of us will cite the importance of staying up to date on current events. Whether it be the COVID-19 pandemic or Russia’s attack on the Ukraine, we often feel compelled to stay informed about what’s going on in the world. However, research has emerged suggesting that repeatedly tuning in to horrors on television has negative effects similar to having experienced those events directly.
A study published after the 9/11 attacks followed 166 children and 84 mothers who had no direct exposure to the attacks. They concluded that “media viewing of tragic events is sufficient to produce PTSD symptoms in vulnerable populations such as children.” Similarly, Homan and colleagues examined the impact of media exposure following the Boston Marathon bombings. They concluded that repeatedly engaging with trauma-related media for several hours daily after collective trauma promotes substantial stress-related symptomatology such as nightmares, sad or anxious moods, intense psychological distress, or intrusive thoughts and images of the event.
The two most common reasons we repeatedly watch media coverage of horrors are the negativity bias and the need for control. The negativity bias is a cognitive bias that causes negative emotions, thoughts or events to have a greater effect on our psychological state than otherwise equal, neutral or positive ones. In other words, the negatives are stronger than the positives. Watching a news story about a destructive storm stimulates our brains more than watching a story about a dog being rescued. Furthermore, learning about tragedies creates a sense of helplessness. That’s why repeatedly tuning in to these stories makes us feel like we are doing something, when in actuality we aren’t.
Given the above, it’s no surprise that watching negative news stories can take a toll on our emotions. Below are some tips to satisfy your need to stay informed while minimizing the potential negative effects:
- Limit how much time you watch the news: Set a limit of 30-60 minutes a day to watch news coverage. Avoid the temptation to have the news on all day in the background.
- Find better ways to stay informed: Read a newspaper (print or digital) instead of watching the news on TV. Take an in-depth look at the subject matter by watching a documentary or reading a book about the topic.
- Take action: Participate in fundraiser/collection drive or check on someone you know who may have been directly affected by the situation. This will decrease the feelings of helplessness.
- Turn off notifications: Watch or read the news at a time that you have set aside to do this rather than when an alert tells you.
Staying informed about current events is important, but it doesn’t have to impair your mental health. Setting a limit on your consumption of broadcast news and following some of the suggestions above can make you feel calmer more informed and ultimately happier.
Francine Rosenberg, Psy.D. practices cognitive-behavior therapy, specializing in treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as other anxiety disorders.