How the Way we Get our News Has Evolved and Ruined our Mental Health
By Breanna Edwards
Edited by Annika Lilja
We have all heard the doomsday and dystopian predictions — which seem only to have increased over the last few years — driven by events such as climate change, the COVID pandemic, and the threat of world war brought on by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s easy, with the knowledge of all of this and more, to fall into a waning pit of hopelessness and nihilism. If you feel this way, you are not alone. Studies and surveys have proven that consistent exposure to bad news exponentially increases symptoms of mental illness and trauma (Turmaud.) This increasing mental health crisis is spurred on by a number of factors, but arguably one of these is how we understand and interact with our evolving world. The spike of social media and other technologies has changed forever how we consume bad news, and statistics show it has taken its toll.
TECHNOLOGY AND ACCESS
One hundred, fifty, or even thirty years ago, the news was limited. You read the newspaper at breakfast; you listened to the radio after dinner; you watched a news program for a few minutes before bed. News was an event: Something to do for a fraction of the day. Now, we have apps, alerts, and the persistent opinions of the people we follow on Twitter. The news is not something we work into our schedule, it is woven into the very fabric of our chaotic lives.
According to the website Reviews.org, the average American checks their phone 262 times a day, or once every 5.5 minutes (Wheelwright.) It is almost inevitable that a large percentage, if not all of these mindless glances, will include at least one bit of bad news. You get a notification telling you about a deadly Earthquake; you have a news app widget on your home screen showcasing the trending articles on a celebrity’s relationship status and the degrading climate; nonprofits post about a school lost in a mudslide; Twitter users gleefully herald the most recent way the current president is screwing up. Even if you don’t sit down to watch the news every night, you are likely flooded with it at every available moment—-and too many of us are drowning. It trickles into our lives, invading selfies, pictures of our friend’s dog and memes so often we may not even realize it. This constant interaction between our lives and worldly disasters is capable of causing an ever present sense of impending doom coupled with anxiety, for which all of us are liable to experience every time we open our phones.
The second way in which our news consumption has severely altered is the sheer amount of it available. The internet, especially the easy connectivity of social media, has opened up conversations to billions of people. This is a wonderful thing, a very important thing, but it also means that we are consuming thousands of tragedies and injustices that we would not have even known existed fifty years ago. The news now goes beyond the headlines, and while this has brought awareness and aid to many worthy causes, we have forgotten how to digest the bombardment of information without crushing our mental health. Most of us have found that you simply cannot have enough empathy, research, and action to make a change for every issue. If one was to try to care about everything, they would burn out. Their mental health would suffer, and they would lose energy — defeating the purpose of trying to do anything about the issues that gave them anxiety in the first place.
SECOND HAND TRAUMA AND RAPID-FIRE NEWS
Someone records a traumatic scene of police brutality on their phone. The victim(s) of this brutality have experienced direct trauma and because videos and images can be taken and shared on smartphones in a matter of seconds, we can be right there, in the heat of the tragedy, seeing vivid and disturbing images from the eyes of the people experiencing them.
The person recording this video, as well as everyone who watches the video after the fact, can experience secondary/vicarious trauma. This is a psychological condition in which a person can experience mental health and PTSD symptoms without having been in a traumatic incident themselves (Turmaud.) Or, to put it more professionally and eloquently, “...no one is immune to the potential of experiencing distress after watching media coverage of trauma (especially if images and videos are involved)... Even more disconcerting is that research findings indicate that the percentages of people who may experience these responses are not minuscule; as some research notes that almost one-quarter of individuals reported experiencing secondary traumatic stress symptoms after watching violent media coverage” (Turmaud).
When you consume the news, especially if it involves photos/videos, especially if those photos/videos are graphic, and especially if those photos/videos are recorded by a civilian living those traumatic incidents first-hand, you are at risk for secondary trauma which causes increased hopelessness, mental illness, and in some cases PTSD.
The third big change is a rise in the need to be socially aware. Again, like the other points, this can be a good thing. As global citizens, we should want to influence politics and procedures to make the world a better place for the people we care about in both our international and local community. However, the overwhelming burden of bad news can quickly become harmful. Faced with the multitude of injustices in the world, some social media users begin to pressure themselves, as well as others, to be informed and take action on each and every issue. Although these users have good intentions, they have unwittingly contributed to another mental health epidemic — compassion fatigue.
A user on the website SOVA for educators defines compassion fatigue as, “...emotional and physical exhaustion leading to diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others. It is also referred to as a secondary stress reaction,” (Compassion fatigue in.) The Psychology Today article titled “Compassion Fatigue” goes on to say, “(Compassion fatigue is the) sapped ability to cope with secondary trauma (that) can lead to total exhaustion of one’s mental and physical state.” According to the same piece, “Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include exhaustion, disrupted sleep, anxiety, headaches, stomach upset, irritability, numbness, a decreased sense of purpose, emotional disconnection, self-contempt, and difficulties with personal relationships.”
Compassion fatigue may cause a person to simply stop caring, and therefore stop trying. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of “If I can’t fix it all, I can’t fix any of it.”
HOPE AND CHOOSING PEACE
The bad news is, these factors combine to create a spiderweb of mental illness, hopelessness, and burnout.
The good news is, the world isn’t getting worse. Terrible things have always happened, just never in coincidence with the sheer scale of technology and information now available to the general population. Social media, blogs, virtual newspapers, and all networks are essentially the opportunity to tell a story. This article does not at all argue that we should stop using it as such, but rather encourages readers to be more aware of how the media affects their mental health and to make a few simple changes to improve their life for the better.
How can you improve your media habits? And why should you?
If you want to be a political individual: To be involved in activism, in voting, and in change-making, you must maintain healthy boundaries with the news, especially the bad stuff. Simply put, if you take care of yourself, you will be better equipped to take care of others. If you want to make a change in the world, you must first make sure you can handle it mentally.
So, how are a few ways you can improve your media consumption?
Delete your news apps/widgets, and unsubscribe from news blogs and websites that send you constant notifications. “But,” you will say, “How will I stay informed?” Well…
…if you do want to keep the news as a part of your life, do so in a more intentional way. Set aside a time every day, no more than an hour, in which you research the going-ons of the world to your heart’s content. Once you have finished this, close out all news apps or shows, take a few deep breaths, take a shower, exercise, read, watch a funny TV show, whatever it is you do to destress and decompress. Get back into your body, into your life, and try to remind yourself of the things you are grateful for.
You have heard it a thousand times, but I am here to say it again: Just pick up your phone less. Especially social media. A lot of us reach for our phone as an almost unconscious nervous tick, when we are tired or nervous or bored. Simply trying to break this habit will decrease the amount of times you mindlessly open social media by a lot.
Unplug. I am not saying you have to go live in the woods without electricity (unless that sounds appealing, in which case do you.) All I am saying is set aside an hour or two every day where you do not let yourself on your phone. Maybe a whole morning or even an entire day every once in a while.
Find hobbies that do not involve technology. Hobbies are a great way to release stress and connect you again with the things beyond the seemingly collapsing state of the world.
Change your perspective on life. You must accept these two things: (1) You cannot fix the world and are not responsible to do so. (2) You have to learn to see life through the small everyday moments rather than the life changing, the politically upheaving, and the chaos. Life will always change, teach yourself how to find beauty and peace in your own life.
And last of all, take action. It does not have to be big, and it does not have to be holistic. You were not meant to carry the weight of every burden the world holds. Find what you are passionate about and use that as motivation to act. Surround yourself with like-minded people, fight for change with educated optimism and appreciate every victory, realizing that each step is a step closer to the finish line.
Wheelwright, Trevor. “2022 Cell Phone Usage Statistics: How Obsessed Are We?” Reviews.org, 24 Jan. 2022, https://www.reviews.org/mobile/cell-phone-addiction/.
“Compassion Fatigue in the 24 Hour News Cycle.” SOVA, 12 May 2022, https://sova.pitt.edu/compassion-fatigue-in-the-24-hour-news-cycle.
“Compassion Fatigue.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/compassion-fatigue.
“Watching the News Can Be Traumatizing.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifting-the-veil-trauma/202001/watching-the-news-can-be-traumatizing.