The inventions of internet and cable television have been bad for newspapers’ financial health, but they have also been bad for news consumers’ mental health.
Once upon a time, most people got their news once or twice a day. They woke up to a newspaper on their doorstep, caught up on highlights of the previous day’s events over breakfast, and then went at least another 24 hours without having any idea what the President of the United States was up to. Others tuned in to a 15- to 30-minute nightly news broadcast before turning off the television again.
Now, access to news is nonstop. Breaking news alerts constantly pop up on phones and people spend hours a day “doomscrolling” through endless updates on social media. Others keep their television set on every waking minute.
Unfortunately, those extra hours spent on news don’t necessarily mean everyone is better informed. Many have traded reading articles full of facts and context for scrolling past 16 variations of the same headline. Cable news stations fill time with speculation, arguments and constantly repeated information for “those just tuning in.”
If the Oxford dictionary defines news as “newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events,” by definition the news is often unhappy. “No bridges collapsed today” is not noteworthy because that happens most days, but a local bridge collapsing is important new information.
Paradoxically, good news becoming more newsworthy is actually a bad sign for the world. If you traveled into the future and saw a headline that said “No bridges collapsed today,” that would suggest that going a day without any bridges collapsing was rare.
When people are fed a steady diet of those types of negative stories 24 hours a day, however, it can skew their perception of reality, making the world seem like a dark place indeed. And while that’s not good for anyone’s mental health, avoiding the news altogether is also detrimental when it causes people to lose out on opportunities, miss warnings of danger, fall prey to misinformation or let people in power get away with wrongdoing.
So how do you strike a balance between staying informed while also caring for your mental health?
First, choose your sources carefully. Think of news like food. If you’re going to consume a limited amount per day, focus on the “fruit and vegetable” issues rather than the junk food. Don’t stuff yourself so full of clickbait about why a celebrity’s latest Instagram post is receiving pushback that you skip out on reading well-researched, in-depth reports about topics that actually matter.
Second, control your “news time.” Block off times you’re going to put down the phone and turn off the television — during the work day, perhaps, or between dinner and bedtime. Consider whether you need breaking news notifications turned on.
If you find yourself struggling with anxiety or depression that seems to be heightened by constantly reading stories about topics like COVID-19, but still want to stay informed, try focusing on print newspapers, magazines or email newsletters. While social media algorithms push the most controversial articles to the forefront of your newsfeed, sitting down to read a more thoughtfully curated collection of stories all at once has a more balanced effect.
Third, put the news in context. Ask, “Is this something common that is likely to happen to me, or a rare occurrence?” A story about a shark attack might make you worried about getting in the water for your upcoming beach vacation, for example, but you might worry less if you discover there is an average of only 16 shark attacks per year in the United States, out of millions of tourists who visit our coasts each year.
Lastly, seeking out information about how to avoid the bad thing you’re reading about, or what other people are doing to fix the problem, can make you feel more empowered.
If you feel constantly outraged or hopeless over things like institutional racism or corporate greed, try to balance out investigative reporting shining a spotlight on injustice with stories of people successfully fighting a corrupt system. Learn about nonprofits you can support or other constructive ways to channel your anger.
Staying informed is important but, like most things, it works best when you do it responsibly.