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Is the News Harming or Helping Your Psychological Health?

Is avoiding the barrage of apocalyptic headlines better for our mental health?

Key points

  • Around 42 percent of Americans "actively avoid the news at least some of the time."
  • Research shows that different ways of engaging with the news can be either harmful to our mental health or empowering.
  • By assuming detached engagement, we can strive to be invested in what’s going on in the world, while maintaining a certain distance.

"I just can't listen to the news anymore. It's too much." These words came from a close friend of mine who recently admitted to me that he was avoiding the headlines, unable to remain calm and globally engaged at the same time.

Troubling though this is, data shows that my friend isn't the only one; research from last year revealed that 42 percent of Americans "actively avoid the news at least some of the time," and 15 percent had actually switched off from the news altogether.

Source: Brian McGowan / Unsplash
Source: Brian McGowan / Unsplash

The world is chaotic, turbulent, and overwhelming. In fact, the Collins English Dictionary's 2022 word of the year perfectly summed up the state we all find ourselves in: A "permacrisis" describes a "dizzying sense of lurching from one unprecedented event to another, as we wonder bleakly what new horrors might be around the corner."

To add insult to injury, there are now a million and one ways in which we can hear about the many crises raging—the TV, radio, news alerts, social media posts, tweets, and newspapers all combine to create a steady drumbeat of gloomy headlines throughout our days.

While it's, therefore, no wonder that people are avoiding the news, it does beg the question: When it comes to coping with the permacrisis, is more information harmful or helpful?

Research doesn't give us a straightforward answer. In defense of "harmful," there is much evidence to suggest that the news increases levels of stress and anxiety. One study reported that during the pandemic, adults who more frequently sought information about COVID-19 were also more likely to report emotional distress. The "doom scrolling" phenomenon has been linked to increased anxiety and depression, and exposure to bad news has even been shown to make personal worries worse.

But before you switch off your news alerts entirely, there is plenty to advocate for staying informed too. Research has paradoxically shown that teenagers who understood COVID-19 during the pandemic reported better well-being than their peers, while another study revealed that the best predictor of having better mental well-being was to "avoid watching too much news" rather than to avoid it entirely.

The corollary of this is to suggest that when it comes to keeping up with the news, perhaps it is not about whether or not you engage, but rather how you engage: i.e., how you receive and process the information.

Source: No Revisions / Unsplash
Source: No Revisions / Unsplash

In our consulting practice, we often use the term "detached engagement" to describe the highly desirable mindset whereby an individual can retain a level of emotional distance from the consequences of their actions and wider events in their environment while simultaneously caring deeply and being able to invest positive energy in the pursuit of valued outcomes.

So, how can we apply the detached engagement mindset to how we engage with the news?

1. Firstly, reconsider your agency.

Most of us have news alerts set to our smartphones, meaning our emotional state can be curtailed at any moment throughout the day. Reconsider your agency and start to control what time you consume new stories and for how long each day. Ideally, you should read the news at lunchtime when you are at your least vulnerable. However, if it is impossible to stick to a routine, then you should at least avoid scrolling or watching the news before you fall asleep.

2. Be conscious and critical.

Question what you are reading or watching, where it is coming from, and the potential journalistic prerogatives: i.e., is this reporting factual and impartial, or is it an emotive source? Different news pieces will have different effects on us, and to retain a level of detached engagement, it is important that we are aware of why we feel angry, sad, or happy.

3. Seek out the good news.

As humans, we are particularly vulnerable to the negativity bias, whereby our brains give more credence to information that frightens or upsets us. This is an evolutionary tool as our survival depends on avoiding harm, so we make sure to read and remember the negative news.

As a result, we need to actively seek out good news stories and share them. Negative headlines consistently rate more highly than positive ones because that is all we're currently searching for, thereby giving more space to information that upsets us but also missing crucial opportunities for inspiration.

I encourage you all to start building a better relationship with the news. When it is so vitally important that we stay informed so we can have meaningful conversations and use our knowledge to encourage positive progress, we must consider what kind of engagement it will take to protect ourselves from reaching a point of needing to "switch off"—and we must strive to make those changes.

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