Psychological Effects of Watching the News

I generally try to avoid watching the news.  I think it’s distracting and doesn’t offer much of any value to my life.  There always seems to be a: murder, kidnapping, natural disaster, scandal, robbery, trial, change in the weather pattern, disease outbreak, etc. – going on somewhere.  If I attempted to track every single crime or injustice in the world by watching the news, I would drive myself absolutely bananas – and probably wouldn’t be able to think straight.

Aren’t I very uninformed for not watching the news? Yes – and that’s the entire point.  Why would I want to be informed of every single negative, crazy, or outrageous event going on in the world – most of which have zero relevance to my life?  The answer: I wouldn’t.  For this reason, I make it a regular habit of deliberately avoiding the news.

If I happen to catch a glimpse of the news, I don’t beat myself up.  However, if I were [in an alternate universe] fanatically glued to the news waiting to obsess over the latest Trump tweet – it is my hope that someone would call for an intervention; preferably one that involved grabbing my TV, throwing it in the street, and smashing it with a baseball bat (akin to the Printer Smash scene in Office Space – queue Geto Boys music).

Moreover, the news overwhelmingly broadcasts negative events that have already happened; in hindsight – there’s nothing anybody can do now to turn back the clocks and prevent these events from happening.  While not all news is negative or triggers the reptilian (i.e. primitive) brain centers to induce absolutely savage emotion, a majority of news coverage does.

Why? Because the goal of news is profits.  To keep people “hooked” on watching, it must induce strong emotion.  This is why the news usually: instills fear, riles people up, and appeals to tribalistic tendencies (e.g. democrat vs. republican).  Anyways, because both of my parents are avid news watchers and frequently like to discuss the latest news “happenings,” I sought to investigate whether there might be any significant psychological effects (positive or negative) attributable to a news watching habit.

Psychological Effects of Watching the News

Included below are studies that either: directly investigated the psychological effects of watching TV news – or that discussed the impact of news watching on aspects of mental health.  I’ve summarized the information that I was able to gather from reach study.  Additionally, I listed possible limitations associated with each study that might affect the legitimacy of the findings.

2017: Effects of Cable News Watching on Older Adults’ Physiological and Self-Reported Stress and Cognitive Function.

Researchers Deal, Bogdan, Miller, et al. noted that older adults are the biggest consumers of cable news programming.  The researchers further mentioned that cable news frequently includes negative and politicized content that may induce stress to the viewer.  Because older adults are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of stress, researchers hypothesized that watching cable news:

  1. Induces a stress reaction: Viewing news was hypothesized to induce psychological stress (e.g. feelings of anxiety or nervousness) and physiological stress (e.g. bodily adaptations consistent with the stress response – such as increased secretion of cortisol).
  2. Impairs cognitive function: Viewing the news was hypothesized to compromise cognitive function. Assuming news induces a stress reaction, elevated stress might impair cognitive performance.

To test their hypotheses, researchers organized a study to evaluate the effects of cable news (e.g. “Fox News” or “MSNBC”) exposure on 34 healthy older adults.  It was noted that Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) served as a negative control, whereas the trier social stress test (TSST) served as a positive control – in that the latter induced stress.

What were the results? Cable news watching had no effect on measures of psychological stress, physiological stress, or cognitive function.  What’s more, the findings remained unchanged even if participants viewed news from a network that was inconsistent with his/her political standing.

Conclusion: Authors concluded that brief cable news watching does not appear to induce stress – or cause cognitive impairment among healthy older adults.

(*Limitations: Sample size; brief viewing; older adults)

(Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29139320)

2008: Physiological responses to violence reported in the news.

Ragonesi and Antick organized a study to investigate the effect of news watching on activation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).  If you’re unfamiliar with the ANS, understand that there are 2 branches: the sympathetic nervous system (associated with the stress response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (associated with relaxation).

For the study, researchers recruited 33 participants and had them watch the news, then a comedy clip.  Before and after news and comedy watching, respectively, each participant completed a questionnaire and provided researchers with a saliva sample.

What were the results? After watching the news, cortisol levels of participants did not increase (as evidenced by saliva samples).  However, participants reported significant reductions in positive mood (i.e. joy) and increased restlessness.

On the other hand, after exposure to the comedy clip – participants noted decreases in tiredness, sadness, irritation, anxiety, and restlessness, and increases in relaxation and joy.  There was an association between high stress within 1-month prior to the study and reports of: coldness, trembling, nearly crying, sweaty palms, breathing difficulty, and restlessness – on the questionnaire.

Conclusion: Results of this study indicate that while news watching does not appear to alter ANS function (based on salivary samples), it may decrease positive emotion.  Additionally, it seems as though watching the news may synergistically provoke greater psychological stress among persons with a recent history of high stress.

(*Limitations: Sample size (33); measures (questionnaire))

(Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19093600)

2007: Negative psychological effects of watching the news in the television: relaxation or another intervention may be needed to buffer them!

Szabo and Hopkinson conducted a relatively large-scale trial, with a total of 179 undergraduate students, to evaluate the psychological effects of news watching.  The 179 undergraduate participants were assigned to watch: a 15-minute random newscast.

Thereafter, they were randomly assigned to: engage in a 15-minute relaxation exercise OR receive a 15-minute lecture (control group).  Researchers measured state anxiety, total mood disturbance, positive emotion, and negative emotion – prior to newscast viewing, after newscast viewing, and again after either the relaxation exercise OR the lecture.

What were the results? The results indicated that state anxiety and total mood disturbance increased – and positive emotion decreased – in all participants after watching the 15-minute newscast.  State anxiety and total mood disturbance reverted back to baseline (pre-newscast status) in the relaxation group – but remained unchanged in the control group.

Conclusion: It was concluded that watching the news on television triggers negative psychological emotion that cannot be reversed with diversion of attention (via lecture).  However, a targeted psychological relaxation exercise (progressive relaxation) appears to reverse the negative psychological effect of news watching.

(*Limitations: Age-limited)

(Source: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Attila_Szabo3/publication/5919537)

2003: Television News and the Cultivation of Fear of Crime.

Romer, Jamieson, and Aday conducted an in-depth investigation in attempt to determine why television news cultivates “fear of crime” in viewers.  At the beginning of the report, researchers posed the following question:

“Why has the public persisted in believing that violent crime is a widespread national problem in the U.S. despite trends in crime and the fact that crime is concentrated in urban locations?”

According to “cultivation theory,” it is believed that widespread fear of crime is significantly influenced by watching the news.  Specifically, exposure to violent and/or dramatic programming on prime-time cable news television is thought to induce fear of crime.

Researchers investigated the following similar hypothesis:

Fear of crime is partly a byproduct of exposure to crime-saturated local television news.

To evaluate this hypothesis, researchers assessed:

  1. Results of a national survey of perceived risk
  2. A 5-year span of the General Social survey (1990-1994)
  3. Results of a survey of over 2,300 Philadelphia residents

What were the results? The results indicated that viewing local news television was associated with increased fear and concern about crime.  Viewers of local television news exhibited increased perception of crime risk on both a personal and societal level.

This result was supported by all assessments, including: national, regional, and local.  Watching the news lead people to think that: they were at greater risk of being a crime victim, that society was at high risk of crime, and that their neighborhood was at elevated risk for crime.

Conclusion: Investigators concluded that the results of this study support “cultivation theory” in that fear of crime is significantly influenced by watching the news.  Specifically, the more a person watches the news, the greater his/her fear of crime is likely to be.

Moreover, watching news in certain regions where violent crime is more prevalent and/or covered more frequently – may instill greater fear than in regions where violent crime is less prevalent and/or covered less frequently.  It was noted that there are economic incentives for violent news programming, particularly at the local level.

The bottom line: Watching the news leads people to focus more on crime – and less on other societal issues of equal or greater importance.  What’s more, crime coverage on the news: conditions fear of victimization, negatively alters perceptions of places where crimes have occurred, increases fear to the extent of altering travel behavior, and disrupts community relations between different ethnic groups.

Based on the results of this study, it is evident that watching the news induces fear and/or anxiety in the viewer.  The greater the amount of time spent watching the news – and the more violent crime being covered – the greater the intensity of fear induction.

(*Limitations: Design, Measures)

(Source: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7d05/a81d38026231028f2d301403454e2fc81677.pdf)

1997: The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: the catastrophizing of personal worries.

Johnston and Davey sought to determine the effect of TV news watching on mood state and anxiety.  Researchers recruited participants, divided them into 3 groups, and showed them one of several 14-minute TV news bulletins that were edited to display either:

  1. Positive material
  2. Neutral material
  3. Negative material

What were the results?  The results discovered that participants who watched the negatively-themed news material exhibited increases in both depression and anxiety – as well as exacerbation of personal worries.

Conclusion: It was concluded that negatively-valenced TV news (i.e. emotionally unpleasant news) may prove deleterious to the psychological wellbeing of the viewer.

(*Limitations: Sample size)

(Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9061893)

1994: Television viewing and depression: No news is good news.

A study by Potts and Sanchez aimed to examine viewing motives and psychological outcomes of TV news viewing by individuals in depressive moods.  Researchers documented the following among study participants: severity of depression; reasons for watching TV; and the psychological effects of watching TV news.

What were the results?  The results indicated that watching positive or neutral TV programming can help individuals with preexisting depression to temporarily “escape” from their depressive mood.  However, specifically viewing news programming seems to worsen mood – likely due to the negative events being covered.

Conclusion: It was concluded that watching positive or neutral TV programming may help individuals cope with depression and anxiety, whereas watching the news tends to induce and/or reinforce negative psychological states like depression and anxiety.

(*Limitations: Sample size)

(Source: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254298974)

According to studies, what are the psychological effects of watching TV news?

Considering all of the studies I examined, the data appear to suggest (nearly unanimously) that watching the news (even briefly) can decrease positive emotion and/or induce negative emotional states (such as depression and anxiety).  Additionally, in persons with preexisting high levels of depression or anxiety – watching the news typically exacerbates these emotions.  What’s more, local news seems to be worse than regional or national news in terms of broadcasting crime and instilling fear.

  • Deal, Bogdan, Miller, et al. (2017): Brief cable news viewing does not induce a stress response or impair cognitive function in healthy older adults.
  • Ragonesi and Antick (2008): Watching the news decreases positive moods and increases restlessness.
  • Szabo and Hopkinson (2007): Watching TV news induces negative emotion (anxiety and depression) that cannot be reversed with subsequent distraction. This study included 179 participants – and is the largest study to date in which the psychological impact of news viewing was examined.
  • Romer, Jamieson, Aday (2003): The greater the amount of time spent watching TV news, the more fearful people become – particularly of crime.
  • Johnston and Davey (1997): Negatively-valenced TV news appears deleterious to the psychological wellbeing of viewers.
  • Potts & Sanchez (1994): Watching TV news induces or reinforces negative psychological states like depression and anxiety.

In my opinion, the most robust evidence is derived from the Szabo and Hopkinson study in which 179 undergraduates participated.  The only study that reported no substantial negative psychological effect of news watching – was extremely small (involving just 33 participants) and a specific age group (older adults).

At this time, larger trials with randomized controlled designs would be helpful in determining the effect of news viewing on psychological wellbeing of viewers.  I think that it would also be intriguing to study the psychological states of healthy adults who refrain from watching the news – or examining frequency and/or length of news watching on psychological wellbeing and/or cognitive function.

Are there any strategies for countering the negative psychological effects from the news?

Possibly (15-minute relaxation exercise).  If you’re an avid news viewer, there’s one strategy that may completely reverse the unfavorable psychological impact of watching the news.  In the Szabo and Hopkinson (2007) study, watching news for 15 minutes significantly increased negative emotion.

This negative emotion could not be countered with a 15-minute lecture thereafter (the lecture was intended to divert attention away from the negative news coverage).  However, a 15-minute progressive relaxation exercise after the news exposure completely counteracted the negative psychological effects of news viewing; psychological states reverted back to pre-news baseline.

Although the 15-minute progressive relaxation exercise worked well in the aforementioned study for counteracting the negative psychological effects of news viewing – there’s no telling whether it would work on someone who watches a lot of news (the study only involved a 15-minute newscast).  Nevertheless, progressive relaxation for 15 minutes is currently the most “evidence-based” way to reverse the negative psychological impact of news watching.

I suspect that any activity that puts you in a positive mood and lowers your stress response – should help combat any negative psychological effect of news viewing.  Activities like: going for a run, lifting weights, or even changing the channel to a comedy may prove helpful.  (Watching comedy tends to increase positive emotion and lower anxiety).

Should this research of the news be trusted?

For now, this research is the best we’ve got.  It is fair to question the quality of evidence derived from studies or reports in which the effect of news watching on psychological status was examined.  I personally think that the Szabo and Hopkinson (2007) is the best study to date in which the psychological effect of news exposure was examined – mostly due to its large sample size (179 participants).

Until higher quality data emerges, I think it’s best to err on the side of the consensus.  In other words, because the data are (for the most part) not mixed, I think it’s best to assume that there are negative psychological effects that result from watching the news.  Moreover, unless these studies were funded by big news or media companies – there shouldn’t be any incentive to publish misleading data.

What about the psychological effects of “reading” the news?

Unknown. I’m unsure about whether reading the news would have the same psychological effect as watching it.  My guess is that reading it would yield similar psychological outcomes – mostly because the content will probably incite negative emotion in the reader.  That said, I think this may be worth studying – considering that many people are avid readers of the local newspaper or subscribers to digital news websites.

What about the psychological effects of violent video games, movies, and/or TV shows?

It would be interesting to investigate the effect of violent video games, movies, and/or TV shows.  I’d hypothesize that they’d likely induce negative psychological states – analogous to watching the news. That said, because we know that a video game, movie, and/or TV show isn’t “real” – in that the atrocities or injustices observed didn’t really happen – there might be fewer deleterious psychological consequences.  (This may be something that I’ll investigate in the future).

Why I usually avoid watching the news…

I’m not overly rigid in terms of avoiding the news, but I make no effort to deliberately watch it.  As I’ve already mentioned in the opener of this article, the news generally doesn’t enrich my life – and usually instills fear.  Additionally, I can usually think of another program I’d rather watch than the news – or a more productive activity that I could be doing.

  • Waste of time: I could be doing something else with my time – like writing this article. Other things I could do instead of watching the news include: exercising, cooking, going for a walk, listening to an informative podcast, cleaning around the house, checking in with family (asking how their day has been), etc.
  • Better TV options: There are many things I’d rather watch on TV than the news. I occasionally enjoy watching sporting events and comedy shows (specifically Impractical Jokers).  Comedy shows have been suggested to yield the opposite psychological effects of news viewing in that they simultaneously: enhance mood and reduce stress.
  • Negative psychological effects: Until today, I didn’t know what the effects of watching the news would be on psychological wellbeing. I knew, based on my anecdote, that watching the news generally induces fear.  I see crime, declining economy, etc. and it causes fear and anxiety for me.  I see a sad story, and my positive emotion takes a hit.  My personal experience is consistent with the available research – watching the news negatively alters my psychological state.
  • I’m not missing anything: Well, I guess I’m missing coverage that I care nothing about. (Poor me, right?). If something major does happen (e.g. a missile strike) – odds are that a fellow news fanatic (a majority of people) will tell me, or ask me about it.
  • Uninformed (?): I don’t need to watch the news to know who I’m going to vote for in an election – I vote based on policies rather than random acts of blabbering debate on the news.
  • Reactionary: In most cases, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about what you see on the news. Don’t like the latest move made by the president? What are you going to do about it from your couch besides complain? Oh yeah, nothing.  What are you going to do to prevent the injustice that already happened and is being discussed? Have you built a time machine to go and reverse every bad thing that happened? Nah. You’ll just feel like a reactionary, restless, and/or depressed blob from all that news.

Note: I’m not suggesting that people who watch the news are making a “bad” decision – it’s their decision to make.  If you enjoy watching the news and/or get value from it – fantastic.  I’m merely stating the reasons as to why I generally refrain from watching the news.

Do you watch the news regularly?

If you’re a regular news watcher – I’ve compiled a list of questions that I’d appreciate you answering in the comments section.  Though people are notoriously dishonest or inaccurate in their answers to questionnaires (like the one I’ve provided below) – I’m hoping that persons who read this article answer honestly.  After all, your comment can be completely anonymous.

  • Do you consume news via other formats (e.g. digital subscriptions) besides TV?
  • How much time do you spend per day consuming the news (watching, reading, listening)?
  • For how long have you regularly consumed the news? (e.g. 10 years)
  • What’s your “go to” news source or channel? (e.g. Fox news, MSNBC, etc.)
  • How do you usually feel after watching the news? (Better than before; worse than before e.g. riled up, restless, anxious; or no different than before).
  • Would you feel stressed if you were forced to watch a news channel that conflicted with your political affiliation (e.g. watch Fox news as a democrat or MSNBC as a republican)?

Have you ever tried going without the news – or “media fasting”?

  • If you’ve ever tried going without the news or “fasting” from media for any length of time, how long was the fast?
  • How did you feel during and/or after the media fast?
  • Did you experience “FOMO” (fear of missing out) or urges to check the news (as though it’s some sort of addiction)?
  • If your psychological wellbeing was better without the news – did you continue refraining from watching the news – or did you eventually “relapse” and succumb to your news watching habit; despite the fact that it makes you feel worse?

Issuing a 30-day media fasting challenge…

If you’ve been an avid news watcher for a long-term (e.g. years), I’d invite you to try a 30-day “media fast” whereby you deliberately refrain from consuming “news” of any kind (including the latest “gossip”) for at least 30 days.  Prior to the 30-day media fast, document your mood, productivity, and cognitive performance.  Then, throughout the fast – and after the fast, track your mood, productivity, and cognitive performance – and report your results in the comments section.

  • After going 30 days without watching the news – how do you feel? (e.g. better, worse, or no different than before).
  • Did you notice favorable changes in mood or cognition as a result of avoiding the news?
  • Were you more productive because you weren’t wasting extra time watching the news?

Though not everyone will derive psychological benefit from news abstinence, some individuals certainly will.  The research is nearly unanimous in suggesting that watching the news reduces positive emotion – and increases negative emotion.  Moreover, there are many other things you could be doing with your life besides sitting around the TV waiting for “breaking news” – most of which will induce fear and be of little relevance to your life.

Psychological Effects of Watching the News
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