Dear Ms. Smartphone: I feel bad-tempered these days and my ex says it’s because I am watching so much news on my phone. It’s true that my phone is my main source. There is a lot happening out there and I want to stay informed. Maybe the news makes me anxious and worried? I want to keep up but not feel so stressed about our future. Suzanne, Sausalito
Dear Suzanne: The news has indeed been grim these past few weeks. It’s doubtful that anyone can view it and come away feeling positive about the social order. So lighten up and do not be so hard on yourself. But does the news make people anxious? If so, you are not alone. Nearly half of adults say that they get primary news on social media and a third on Facebook.
If you step back and ask what is “broadcast news” it was only one- hour long 40 years ago. Then, in 1980 Turner’s Cable New Network (CNN) launched 24 hour news and it changed the business model. A similar innovation around 2012, was the round-the-clock news feed that you participate in using your phone, say on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. Social media sites beckon you in if you are engaged, informed or just passionate about a topic. However, as you engage, you will never be sure if others there are legitimate, or if they have a special interest lurking behind the posts. Even worse, they could be bots fabricating elements of the story or pictures.
So, it may be that your anxiousness – or bad temper as you put it- comes from the hard work it takes to engage with social news media and keep it straight. When you go online to these news sites you process a large volume of information, but you process it out of context, in pieces, and without full trust in the sources. When you think about it that way, it’s not about you. Following the news on social media is tricky and cognitively taxing. This is not the only reason that the news can make you anxious, but I think this one gets downplayed.
I would recommend that you take a Digital Sabbath. A Digital Sabbath is not religious- it’s a designated break from using your phone, in this case for news watching. You begin with just one day a week. You are likely to find that you are not missing anything during this 24 hour break. Soon, hopefully, you will be able to incorporate more time-offs into your routine.
By the way, there are a number of studies in mental health that link depression and anxiety to news watching. Longitudinal studies done after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016 paint a grim picture. The academic researchers found that viewers who saw the devastating pictures over and over again were more likely to be anxious and have prolonged stress going forward. If you search, you will find many studies that vet a relationship between anxiety and news viewing. A noteworthy branch is now called “climate anxiety.” Since 2011 psychologists have observed a relationship between indirect exposure to climate stories transmitted by the media and feelings of worry, despair, and guilt.
That said, researchers still do not know, and they may never, whether people who are more anxious and stressed turn to media, or if this association is fueled by media viewing. That’s key!
Since both mental health research and your own experience point to the out-sized role of social media I offer some final advice. If you want to keep up with the news but become less emotionally involved in it then subscribe to a daily newspaper. There is compelling evidence (from the Covid era) that the written stories and pictures are less involving, so readers stay more emotionally distant. Research finds no significant association between newspaper coverage of natural disasters, wars, and trauma and psychological outcomes such as depression, stress, or anxiety. Newspapers should equip you to take in the daily complement of worldwide events without getting irritable, crying, or sad.