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How Is Our Relationship With the News?

mad woman watching tv

You know that old saying you are what you eat? Well, that may apply to how we consume news too. Scientists have been studying the impact of news and our brains for some time now. The way we digest the news impacts our physical and mental health. In fact, some scientists are saying that our relationship with the news could even impact our dreams. As COVID-19 related news continues to evolve we find ourselves tuned in more and more to news outlets. This raises a lot of questions like: What does the news do to our health? How does this happen? What are some factors to consider here? Perhaps let’s start with a larger question: How is our relationship with the news? 

How we consume information has been a long time fascination for scientists. Psychologists, social science experts, and the neuroscience community have all made some pretty remarkable contributions to our collective knowledge on this topic. 

These days it sure feels like we’re seeing and hearing nonstop Coronavirus coverage everywhere thanks to tons of news shows, podcasts, social media feeds, the radio, and a myriad of websites. This availability of news 24 hours a day also has them curious about how this will impact our mental health based on historical evidence from other events covered by the news like the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the 2014 EBOLA outbreak.  Scientists are now digging into some of the factors that make certain kinds of news so difficult for us to digest. Let’s take a look at some of these terms and how they apply to our news consumption habits. 

Negativity Bias: 

Negativity Bias basically means we pay more attention to the worst stuff happening around us, a result of human evolution.  After all, we need to know about all of our potential threats to react or make plans for our safety and survival. 

Affective Forecasting:

Affective Forecasting is when we try to predict how we’ll feel about something in the future. How would you feel if you won a million dollars? No way to find out till you get the money, but people tend to think they know how they would feel in advance.  The same applies to topics like the economy, immigration, and other common news items. Our brains are always trying to predict just how bad we might feel in the future, and end up catastrophizing every bit of news.

The Framing Effect:

The Framing Effect is the way our brains try to compare information to the real world make it relevant. It’s basically the “spin” we put on things to help make choices. You might say yes to a medical treatment that is 95% effective or no to one that has a 5% chance of failure, even though they are the same thing.

Another example here is cancer coverage. Brain cancer gets more news-coverage with more drama but is much more rare than prostate cancer.  However, overconsumption of news may make someone overly concerned with brain cancer while neglecting early signs of prostate cancer due to a skewed perspective.

To make an analogy, the amount of news available to us these days feels like an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Consuming too much news, similar to food, can lead to health problems too. Previous studies have shown that consuming distressing news coverage can impact an individual’s physical health ranging from cardiovascular stress to a lowered immune system and can even impact our dreams! Side note: he dreaming aspect is also another evolutionary occurrence. After all, we process the day’s information while we sleep. The brain goes through what is to be kept for the short term, long term, directional information, names you need to remember, details that need to stay in the forefront of your brain. As we sleep our brain is basically processing the information we received all day. It’s common that repetitive actions like bagging groceries all day for a store clerk or a phone operator for a big company could lead to some of those daily moments appear in our dreams. The same applies to if you spend a large amount of time-consuming the news too. 

These types of stress are called acute stress and could add up to some serious health issues. In a previous study, scientists observed that individuals that were exposed to several hours of news coverage on events like the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing often had mental and physical health issues more than those who were directly there to witness these intense attacks. Our mind and physical health are very deeply tied together and stress is still stressing no matter how you get it. Cardiovascular issues, lowered immune system, irregular sleep, and more mental stress are just a few health concerns that scientists are looking at in this continuing study of the relationship between humans and our news consumption. 

To improve our healthy habits experts encourage sample a little of several sources, consume thoughtfully, and in moderation. When you’re feeling full –or overwhelmed-, step away to gain perspective to avoid the temptation of just one more news bite!

Consider this news as some food for thought!