Ping! Alert! Why That Barrage of News Updates is Bad for Your Mental Health
“Media outlets take advantage of this thing called negativity bias. The human brain cannot help but focus on the negative; words like ‘war’ or ‘pandemic’ get our mental and psychological attention in no time flat… In our everyday lives, when we are not actually in any real imminent danger, getting the idea that we are at risk from our news sources can only do us more harm than good.”
The news never stops. And, perhaps more than ever, you feel that you desperately need to know what’s going on in the world. It could be important, even life changing. And so, once again, you give in to the irresistible urge to turn on the TV news or click on that notification or check your Facebook feed — again.
It feels like the world just might end if you aren’t updated and informed. But that terrible feeling never goes away — even after you click on all the sensationalist headlines and dive in to all the latest disastrous news stories. Around each corner, there’s always something new and scary to pull you in and send your anxiety up. The mental-health toll exacted by this constant barrage of news updates is no minor thing.1
How could it be possible, then, to ever escape this vicious cycle and preserve your mental wellbeing?
Just Turn Off the News? It’s Not So Simple
The simple solution may seem pretty obvious: Just don’t tune in to the news 24/7 and find some more positive things to focus on instead. While this may be the ideal goal, pulling the plug is very rarely easy.
Media companies and social media platforms are designed to hook us. There always will be terrible things happening all around the world; the nightly news promotions and breaking news notifications try hard to convince you that you need to know about every single one. How could you possibly look away? It would be reckless and irresponsible, wouldn’t it?
For the sake of your mental health, you simply must limit your exposure.
Why Is Your Media Consumption Unhealthy?
You know the news is aggravating your anxiety and anger, but it’s still difficult to tune it out. Why? We get pulled in by powerful marketing techniques, and then it’s just about impossible to pull ourselves away from all the negative news; this is a psychological fact.2
Media outlets take advantage of this thing called negativity bias.3 The human brain cannot help but focus on the negative; words like “war” or “pandemic” get our mental and psychological attention in no time flat. Each media outlet wants you watching their news program, reading articles on their website, or scrolling down the feed of their social media platform, so each one plays up the dramatic and the negative. Of course, a focus on the negative makes complete sense; it is actually a good thing when it comes to survival.
However, in our everyday lives, when we are not actually in any real imminent danger, getting the idea that we are at risk from our news sources can only do us more harm than good. And constant media consumption can have a seriously detrimental impact on mental health. From the stress, anxiety, and low moods to anger and hopelessness triggered by situations over which you have no control, the news can be one of the most serious mental health risks.
The Mental Health Benefits of Limiting Media Exposure
There is a way out of this fortress of terror. By limiting the amount of news you consume each day, you can see a dramatic improvement in your mood — the first step toward a much greater way of life overall.
Without your TV or smartphone highlighting every little horror, you can free your brain from that fear of an imminent threat and instead just relax. You might also free up more time for activities that actually make you happy. Chances are, you won’t even miss it, happy to trade away the panic and unease for this inner peace.
How to Improve Your Mental Health Right Now
1. Turn Off Notifications and Set Limits
Even if you can’t unplug entirely, begin by limiting your news consumption. With multiple notifications and platforms designed to pull you in, this is not an easy task.4
To start, turn off push notifications for all the phone apps that should not be pulling your attention away from the joy of real life. You may not even realize just how many apps, from Facebook and Instagram to those of major news networks, have your permission to disrupt your life in this way. An easy way to avoid giving away your focus and attention to these headlines is to just take away that screen permission.
Then, take the extra step of blocking off specific parts of your day as no-news times. You don’t need a constant stream to stay informed. You can get some real relief from all the stress of breaking news by checking in only during specific points of the day. And, while the essential idea is to limit time spent, it is also important that you don’t consume news right before bed5 or first thing in the morning.6
2. Seek Out the Positive News You Do Want
The frequency of news alerts and updates is one problem, but equally important is the content contained in those updates. It is critical to control the sorts of content you’re consuming and to choose more positive information.
Purposefully seek out the kind of news that will bring you joy and inspire you, instead of wallowing in the Top 20 most tragic events of the month. More uplifting content about small acts of kindness, improvement to the world, or incredibly moving human stories provide a great way to start the day. If you can push away the bad to see more of the good, your mood will improve. If anyone tries to bring you down with a discussion of the latest grim disaster, it’s okay to kindly and tactfully shut it down, because your mental well-being really is important.
3. Sometimes You Just Need to Turn It All Off
Crucially, this rule is all about placing your mental health first. Sometimes, that will mean doing just a bit more than usual to support yourself. If you’re facing a particularly difficult time or are really struggling with your mental health, this is the time to take a step back from what’s happening in the world to focus on your own mental well-being. When the news is only compounding your stress, it’s okay to just completely turn it off.
You will survive without the TV, radio, social media channels, and web sites, and you will feel a lot better when you stop listening to their troubling messages. You can use this refreshing break to focus on self-care: meditate, go for a walk, or take a long bath. Just don’t check those headlines until you’re in a better place to handle it all.
Focusing on Your Mental Well-Being
Your mental health is yours to control, and constant news updates are just one obstacle standing in your way. The news may never stop, but neither does your mental health journey. Today, you may start by turning off notifications or finding a hobby to occupy your time, but your work may not end there. To truly improve your well-being, your mental health must become your primary channel of focus.
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1Boukes, Mark, Vliegenthart, Rens. News Consumption and Its Unpleasant Side Effect: Studying the Effect of Hard and Soft News Exposure on Mental Well-Being Over Time. Journal of Media Psychology (2017). https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-1105/a000224
2Edwards, Henry. From Negative Biases to Positive News: Resetting and Reframing News Consumption for a Better Life and a Better World. University of Pennsylvania (2017). https://repository.upenn.edu/mapp_capstone/123/
3Carretie, Lewis, et al. Emotion, attention, and the ‘negativity bias’, studied through event-related potentials. International Journal of Psychophysiology (2001) https://doi.org/10.1016/S0167-8760(00)00195-1
4Hartmans, Avery. These are the sneaky ways apps like Instagram, Facebook, Tinder lure you in and get you ‘addicted’. Business Insider (2018) https://www.businessinsider.com/how-app-developers-keep-us-addicted-to-our-smartphones-2018-1
5Burke, Jolanta, Hughes, Nicola. Sleeping with the frenemy: How restricting ‘bedroom use’ of smartphones impacts happiness and wellbeing. Computers In Human Behavior (2018) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.03.047
6Arana, Gabriel. The Benefits Of Positive News Ripple Far Beyond The First Smile. Huffpost (2015). https://www.huffpost.com/entry/michelle-gielan-broadcasting-happiness_n_55d3b320e4b055a6dab1ee4b