Scientists have known for many years that movies and TV shows depicting emotionally wrenching content can affect mental health. But over the past several decades, a seemingly straightforward form of media — news — has morphed into a sensationalistic messenger of all things negative.
Most people are exposed to at least some of the daily barrage created by the modern 24-hour news cycle. What does this constant stream of bad news, violence and disasters mean for mental health?
The growth of sensationalism
Amplification of negative events appears to have increased over the past 20 years or so, notes Psychology Today. With the competition for viewers and readers more fierce than at any time in history, broadcasters and publishers are under pressure to endow their content with an emotional hook that prompts people to watch, read, listen or click.
The outcome? Every negative event, anywhere in the world, is framed in personal terms. The common refrain is, “Could something like this happen in your town?”
Today’s trend of extended coverage of tragedies can be traced to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, notes New York magazine. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, who researches the connection between emotional stress and media consumption, told the magazine that the event was the first “go viral,” with 24-hour coverage that now has become the norm.
The megaphone of social media
The news climate has changed over the past several decades, but the shift to a never-ending news cycle has come at dizzying speed in the past few years with the rise of social media. Not so many years ago, people could get away from bad news by simply clicking off the TV or throwing out the day’s newspaper.
Today, however, the news follows nearly everyone everywhere. With 1.3 billion active users of Facebook, it appears that many people are living their lives in a constant social state, checking in perpetually to find out what’s going on. News doesn’t just spread now; on a routine basis, it goes viral, largely due to the hundreds of millions of people spending hours on social media each day.
Impact on mental health
A 2007 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that anxiety and mood disturbance increased in college students who watched a 15-minute newscast. One group of the students followed their news viewing session with a progressive relaxation exercise, while the other heard a lecture. Only the group that participated in the relaxation exercise had returned to their normal mood baseline within 15 minutes. Watching TV news triggers “persisting negative psychological feelings” that were lessened only by a psychological intervention, the researchers noted.
But other research has found that being constantly subjected to bad news doesn’t cause mental health conditions like anxiety or depression in individuals not already predisposed to the conditions. Individuals who already suffer from depression or anxiety may, in fact, be more likely to expose themselves frequently to bad news.
Researchers say the constant exposure to negative information could have a subtle effect even on individuals not diagnosed with a mental illness. As a result, a growing number of people may experience a sense of helplessness and view the world as a dark place.
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