We’re constantly surrounded by a ‘noise‘ that is the news media, and quite frankly, most of it is utter bullshit. Very rarely do you see news that isn’t either politically motivated or has some sort of nonsense hidden agenda behind it.
This exposure has only increased with the rise of social media, and with it, a proven increase in mental anguish amongst the population. This, coupled with the current pandemic, protests, elections etc., is a recipe for disaster.
Given two events of equal magnitude, we instinctively pay more attention to the event that has a more negative outcome. This is because we are wired to notice danger for the sake of survival but aren’t always the best at properly interpreting what is and isn’t a true threat.
This extends beyond true threats like paying more attention to criticisms over compliments, losses over gains, and of course, negative news over positive news.
A perfect example of this is when Russian news agency City Reporter covered only positive news for a day and subsequently lost 2/3 of their audience. This is exactly the reason why news agencies are incentivized to show mostly negative news even when there’s a ton of positive news going on.
When we perceive something as danger/ a threat, our brain activities the fight or flight response. The sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which over time, after many activations of this stress response, can lead to physical symptoms like anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleeping problems etc.
To illustrate, a study was done where participants were separated into 3 groups, and were exposed to the following:
Results clearly showed Group 3 had increased levels of anxiety and overall sad mood, which could be expected. What’s interesting though is that they also showed a significant increase in the tendency to negatively distort personal concerns that were totally unrelated to the news they just watched. This is known as catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing // a cognitive distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion, usually with very limited information or objective reason to despair.
In essence, negative news has the ability to exasperate personal worries well beyond the scope and content of what you’re consuming.
This increased stress, if constant enough, can have long term health effects. The body’s stress response is meant to be self-limiting, meaning that it relaxes and resumes normal function once a perceived threat has passed. However, when the threat is constant, or perceived to be (in the form of a barrage of negative news), this stress response remains turned out, resulting in a fairly large list of potential health problems, including:
Social Media giants (*cough cough Facebook, Google and Twitter) and their algorithms can be blamed for a lot of pitfalls in today’s society, but specifically for the way in which they promote fake news and encourage a certain way of thinking, often negatively.
If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend The Social Dilemma on Netflix. It’s a documentary where tech executives and experts sound the alarm on the dangers of social media. In it, they explain just how serious this problem is.
The algorithms being used to find you content are based on your data and activity. This means that you are being showed what you want to see, not what you should be seeing (the truth.) For example, if you are a bat-shit crazy conspiracy theorist who fully believes that the earth is flat, the algorithms used by tech companies will push more conspiracy flat earth content on you, as opposed to recommending content that proves the earth is round. This deepens your belief system, sending you further and further down the rabbit hole.
These algorithms work this way for everything from political stances, to social dilemmas, to hogwash medical advice, to negative news.
Unfortunately, there is only one solution to this problem. Limit your exposure! The less you see, the less you will be effected.
Easier said than done, as news consumption in the States is booming. But knowing all the facts and harms, makes avoiding the news a little easier. Here are some tips from the Mayo News Network on surviving in a world full of negative news. Good luck!