Our human negativity bias, a survival strategy inherited from our early ancestors, who lived in very dangerous environments, naturally draws our attention to negative news stories. This is why negative stories dominate the media and why we feel compelled to watch, listen and read. So it’s natural to want to follow updates of political turmoil, terrorist events, violence, shootings, and war, both on television and social media. However, repeated exposure to trauma by the media can have as similar an impact on our mental health as experiencing the event first-hand. So what do we need to be aware about when assessing our media diet?
1. Constantly Consuming News Doesn't Make Us More Informed
We may think it is necessary to keep up with the news, and those who follow the media closely are more informed about the dangers of the world, but this isn’t the case. In fact, people who digest more media, grossly overestimate rates of violence. We can compound this and raise our levels of anxiety and helplessness further by reading fearful and angry public comments on what has happened and what action should be taken.
2. Cognitive Biases Cause Irrational Thinking
Consuming the news in this way makes us far more anxious and afraid because we don’t tend to be very good at assessing risk. We overestimate our chances of being in danger due to a number of irrational ways of thinking. Some of these include:
- If a recent event is particularly dramatic and receives saturation coverage in the media we tend to overestimate the risk of something similar happening to ourselves. We do not see dramatic in-depth media coverage of other causes of death, which are more common, such as road traffic accidents, so we assume the events that receive more coverage are more dangerous to us.
- We lack awareness of the more common positive or neutral events. We don’t focus on the far more common non-events that occur every day, such as the number of flights that safely arrive at an airport, or the number of positive social interactions between people of different religions. These events, which are a far more accurate indicator of reality, do not make the news as they are common and are more likely to occur.
- We succumb to the recency effect. We think a dramatic event is more likely to happen if a similar event happened recently. This is the case after terrorist attacks, virus outbreaks such as Ebola, and aeroplane accidents.
3. The Way We Get Our Information Makes Us Think The World is Less Safe
Although it sometimes feels like the world is becoming less safe, peaceful and united, and therefore more dangerous, violent, and divided, is this actually the case? If you look at the measurements objectively, the world we currently live in is probably more peaceful, safe, and less dangerous, than at any other time. Despite this, most of us have never felt as disturbed about the world before, so it feels as if things are worse.
What has changed is how we are getting our information; there are now far more cameras to record both small and large incidents, an internet that helps us to spread information more easily and widely, and also the far reaching effects of social media. So the type of information we now receive has changed, along with the way we get it.
We are living in an attention economy and the information that gets the most attention is extremism and fear mongering. As we’ve discussed before, our negativity bias naturally gravitates towards this type of information, even if it is unbalanced. So extreme views are rewarded with more attention, more shares, and more comments. Social media, some news channels, and the internet in general, have developed a medium in which moderate views, respectful discussion, and reasonable behaviour is considered boring and uninteresting.
4. Continual Media Consumption Causes Distraction and Cognitive Overload
Continual media exposure also distracts us from getting on with other activities we need to do, or would benefit from, and can also overload our thinking. Endless access to new information easily overwhelms our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out. So we leave ourselves with little time to do other things properly and are also unable to focus as well on other information.
You also may have noticed once you start looking at news and social media, it’s difficult to stop, it almost becomes an addiction. Our brain craves continual stimulation, is drawn to novelty, and likes to be instantly gratified. Continually watching or reading updates creates a compulsion loop, and like drug addicts, we need more and more ‘hits’ to get the same effect.
As a personal example, I remember when I used to view social media very frequently. I found sometimes when I closed my eyes at night, went in the shower, or did anything that didn’t take up my full attention, my head would be full of the voices of those I followed on social media. They were constantly swirling around my head. I’d be party to arguments between others that didn’t concern me, engrossed in problems I could do nothing about, and overloaded with so much information I couldn’t process it all.
After a while I realised the thoughts of others were robbing me of any peace or quiet, and were not even allowing my own thoughts to come through. My head was full of well-meaning advice, angry views, outraged voices, stories of injustice, fear, grudges, research findings, funny quips, and many polarised opinions. Meanwhile I realised my life was being lived through the lens of others.
HOW SHOULD WE STAY INFORMED?
This is not to say we should never catch up on the news or engage in social media, or that it always has a negative effect. The internet and social media has also been a vehicle for good and provides some people with a voice and positive connections they previously didn’t have access to.
1. Become Aware of Our Media Consumption
We should raise our awareness of how often we access certain types of media and reflect on how we feel after this exposure. We should consider what types of news we digest and what sources we rely on.
2. Plan our Consumption of News and Media
Plan times when you want to catch up with the news rather than accessing it continually, and try to notice when you’re automatically checking for updates without being aware of what you’re doing. If, after reflection, you become aware your media diet is problematic and adds to your anxiety, consider how you might change the way you consume the news and any other media.
3. Consciously Do Something That Nourishes Us
When we have some spare time and find ourselves automatically checking news and social media updates, stop and think what else you can do instead. This unconscious checking often drains our energy and lowers our mood, so consider if there something you can do instead that will rest your mind and boost your energy. Go for a walk, read a novel, talk to a friend. Whatever works for you.
So we don't have to give up on the news and social media, but we should be aware of the biases and the effect it has on our energy and mood. Don't become a hostage to subconscious and irrational thinking, stay informed in a way that helps you to be effective and live life in a meaningful and constructive way.