I'll be honest: once I stopped watching 'Newsround' as a kid I've not really paid much attention to the news. I sort of assume that if there's anything I need to know, my husband will fill me in. This isn't because I don't care or am not interested in what's going on in the world - quite the opposite, give me two minutes with any topic and I'll have an opinion on it - but I am very aware of the negative impact it can have on me.
The impact of news consumption on my mental health became very apparent at the start of the pandemic. I felt an almost compulsive need to check the daily updates whilst at the same time wanting to avoid it all completely. Whenever I heard the words "Boris is doing a press conference at 5…" my insides rearranged themselves and I would be nervous until I heard the outcome. I realised that what I wanted was answers and reassurance, but most of the time I just left with more questions and more uncertainty.
I know I'm not alone. There is growing evidence that negative news consumption increases anxiety and depression, and can trigger acute stress reactions and even post-traumatic stress. Research also shows that when we watch negative news stories, our own personal worries increase even if they have nothing to do with the content of the news. From conversations with others, I think most of us are aware of at least the short-term impact the news can have on us.
So why do we keep coming back for more? And why is it so hard to resist or avoid it?
The human brain is primarily designed to keep us safe, not to make us happy, and one of the ways it does this is by paying attention to worrying information so that we are less likely to miss something that is a threat to our wellbeing. We need to be more intentional about noticing this happening when we are safe or when the threat is manageable, and about paying attention to positives as it takes more effort for our brain to process these in a meaningful way. So it makes sense that more worrying, sensationalist headlines will grab our attention and be hard to ignore.
For similar reasons our brains also pay more attention to things that are new. If we refresh and refresh and nothing new pops up then we soon turn off, but it only takes one new item to keep us there for a bit longer. Novelty is one thing that gives us a little hit of dopamine, which provides a feeling of reward, so we keep coming back for more. But the amount of information we have access to now isn't normal, and it isn't manageable for our brains. In the past you would have reached the end of a news program or finished reading the newspaper and that was that. Most news was disseminated at regular, predictable times; now it's constant, it's hard to switch off, and even if you do you can't control if and when people around you switch off. (And that's if we only think about the amount of factual information out there, never mind 'fake news' and everyone's differing opinions on what's going on. It can be hard to work out what is 'news' and what is 'commentary'.)
The type of media we are exposed to has also changed significantly - there was a time when any news we consumed was carefully produced through media outlets, but now there are no limits on who can capture video or audio material and put it out there for the world to see. This means that what we come across can be even more shocking, and people don't always have a choice over what they see if it comes up as part of their regular social media scrolling. News is also more instantly accessible, and being 'closer to the action' both temporally and graphically can make it feel more personally affecting.
It's hard to find a balance between not overloading ourselves with information that we can't use and problems we can't do anything about, and not completely switching off from the wider world. Many people feel a social responsibility to be aware of and involved in wider issues that don't directly affect them day-to-day and that shouldn't be discouraged, but being aware of and managing the personal impact is important.
So here are some tips for healthy news consumption:
Know yourself: First of all, just be aware of how news consumption can affect you. It can be so helpful to know when it might be a good idea for you not to check the news today, or how you might need to process your thoughts and emotions around it. Look out for signs such as increased irritability, changes in appetite, trouble sleeping, trouble focusing/concentrating, and feeling more easily emotionally overwhelmed.
Set a time limit: As with any kind of online media, the news is now never-ending. You can keep clicking on related stories until you're somehow reading something from the 90s. I recommend this to people with anything involving their phones - think about why you are picking it up, and decide how long you are going to use it for, and stick to this to try to avoid endless scrolling.
Turn off notifications: Again this is a general piece of advice I give everyone about all of their [social] media. Unless you NEED to be notified of something, make it so that you choose when you interact with it, not the other way around.
Be clear on what you can and cannot control: The feeling that there is nothing we can do to help can be overwhelming, but in many cases there are helpful actions we can take even if they don't feel like much and don't solve the problem. For example, we can donate to charities, contribute to local collections, educate our children, follow relevant rules/guidelines... Think about WHY you are seeking out the news and what you need and what you don't.
Look for happy news: Remember that the media controls what it puts out there; it never shows you the whole picture. It is more likely to report sensational stories and things which feed on our anxieties or insecurities. But there is a lot of good in the world, a lot of happy news that rarely gets reported. Seek out news outlets that focus on sharing positive and uplifting news stories to get some balance - such as The Happy News, Good News Network, or Positive News.
Think for yourself: Make sure you're getting your news from reputable sources and remember that people have agendas. Check facts before sharing what you read more widely, and think about when it's helpful for you to discuss the news with certain people and when it isn't.
Turn off when the news becomes olds: When news items start to repeat and include no, or very little, new information, turn off and focus on something else.
Connect with loved ones and enjoy yourself: Your own little world can start feeling insignificant when there are big news stories, but it isn't. What you do to help and love the people around you is important as well, as is enjoying your life.
Johnston, W. M., & Davey, G. C. (1997). The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. British Journal of Psychology, 88(1), 85-91.
Piotrkowski, C. S., & Brannen, S. J. (2002). Exposure, threat appraisal, and lost confidence as predictors of PTSD symptoms following September 11, 2001. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72(4), 476-785.