How Too Much Negative News Impacts Our Mental Health

by Ryan Mernin 

It’s been a pillar of modern parenting ever since Saturday morning cartoons took the country by storm: too much screen-time can have serious mental health consequences for kids. There’s no shortage of research linking symptoms like attention difficulties and moodiness to the physical effects of excessive screen-time on the developing brain, a condition that psychiatrist and author Victoria Dunckley has dubbed the frightening “electronic screen syndrome.”

While there’s little doubt that kids are the most susceptible to these damaging effects, it’s important not to overlook the fact that adults too face a similar – and perhaps more complicated – problem when it comes to screens and the amount of time we all spend each day sifting through articles and watching videos of angry news pundits. Just because the adult brain is more fully developed, it is by no means immune to the harmful stress and anxiety that can result from that minute-to-minute impulse to check your phone. 

A negative news obsession

 The problem for many adults, however, is not as simple as the screens themselves. In our world of attention-grabbing headlines and constantly changing Twitter trends, our minds spend less time wandering by themselves and more time scrolling through the infinity of our Facebook feeds. While it might seem rehabilitative to turn away from the activities of the day for a little bit of rest and relaxation on your phone, much of what we see and read every day leaves us more anxious and less prepared to meet the more immediate challenges in our lives.

 A survey from the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that, for more than half of Americans, the news is a major source of stress in their lives. Many report feeling fatigued and losing sleep because of their concern for questions surrounding the future of the nation and social division. What’s more, nearly 60 percent of adults say that this is the lowest point they can remember in U.S. history.

“We’re seeing significant stress transcending party lines,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO of the APA, in response to the survey. “The uncertainty and unpredictability tied to the future of our nation is affecting the health and well-being of many Americans in a way that feels unique to this period in history.”

This particular kind of obsession with the news is unique to our world today. The data scientist Kalev Letaru measured the tone of the news from 1945 to 2010 from countries around the world: he found that it has become more and more negative over the years, especially from the 1990s onwards. The danger in this trend is obvious, as our general outlook on the world begins to reflect less the reality of our lives and more the outrageous stories we see online. 

The anxiety of the news itch

There’s a reason for this effect, something psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman call the Availability heuristic. Through their research, they showed how our memory of an event influences our belief in the possibility of it happening in the future. In this way, the frequency of shark attacks, plane crashes, and other extremely rare events that are highlighted in the news influences our perception of how likely they are to happen to us. Wars and disasters around the world take on a similarly personal and threatening significance for the same reason, even when they have no immediate connection to our lives.

The thing is, even as we come to terms with how negative news affects us, we are all fundamentally geared to eat this stuff up thanks to our clunky, prehistoric brains. “In a state of nature, our survival depends on finding rewards and avoiding harm, but avoiding harm takes priority,” says Dr. Loretta Breuning, author of Habits of a Happy Brain. Once upon a time, we might have made good use of this mechanism and remembered not to hunt for food in the part of the woods where bears live. Today, however, it’s helping to overtax our brains with all kinds of worries and abstract fears they can simply do without.

Reclaiming healthy news habits

Of course, spending less time reading the news won’t solve all the problems associated with too much time plugged-in and logged-on. For many people, however, being up-to-date online in one way or another is a necessity; telling someone simply to ignore their phone might be overlooking the many ways that modern life depends on constant access to the internet. That said, there is a difference between meaningful engagement online and hours spent forging through a barrage of angry op-eds and rehashings of the day’s events.

Media Reverb: Feeling the News

It’s time to take stock of our modern media malaise. MONTCLAIR BOUNCE has brought together a panel of news experts to start the conversation and shed some light on the nature of our negative news problem. Media Reverb is a panel discussion on June 2nd, 1:30 p.m. in the Assembly Hall at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair featuring Senior CBS National Correspondent Jim Axelrod, former CNN Chief White House correspondent and novelist Jessica Yellin, and psychotherapist Kaity Rodriguez. From covering the news to studying the impact that various forms of coverage have on people, our panelists will help produce some much-needed insight into the nature of news consumption today through their valuable stories and experience.

For the whole story on Media Reverb and everything else BOUNCE, check out the rest of our site!

Find out more about internet addiction and the right amount of time to spend online at NetAddiction. For more on building healthy habits for your brain, head over to Dr. Breuning’s Happy Brain podcast.




Ryan Mernin