Before cable networks and the internet, we got our news in small doses. We had our morning newspaper and the 6 o’clock news. Most of the day we were busy with our lives, and received a few small glimpses of bad news. Today with the 24-hour news cycle, cable news networks, and social media, we are totally immersed in news, and it takes an effort to escape it. A recent study by Stephanie Andel, Maryana Arvan, and Winny Shen published in Journal of Applied Psychology investigated the impact of watching news. This study shows that watching COVID news is bad for mental health.
Stress and Mental Health
Mental health has to do with our behavioral, emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It is not just the absence of a diagnosed psychological disorder, but the extent to which we are able to function properly in different life domains, including school, work, and social relationships. Emotional reactions are an indicator of mental health. Occasional experiences of negative emotions, such as anxiety or depression, are normal reactions to events in our lives. Frequent experience of such emotions can interfere with functioning, and in the extreme can rise to the level of a mental health disorder.
Everyone experiences occasional stressful events in life. You might have to give a presentation at work, take an important exam at school, or visit the dentist to have a tooth fixed. Such events can induce some level of tension and anxiety. Occasional experiences result in little long-term harm to mental health. Chronic experiences of stress, on the other hand, that result in continued negative emotions and tension can harm mental health, and can contribute to physical illness, as well.
COVID News Is Bad for Mental Health
The Andel research team conducted an 8-week study of 281 employees during the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each week employees completed a survey asking about how much time they spent watching COVID news, how much anxiety they experienced in general, and how much engagement they had at work, that is, how excited they felt about work and how much attention to paid to the job. Since all three variables were assessed each week, they were able to see if watching news one week affected anxiety and engagement the next. Not surprisingly, they found that the more people watched the news, the more anxiety they experienced, and the less engaged they were with work.
This study should serve as a warning to all of us. When a crisis hits there is a tendency to turn to the news to keep informed about latest developments. This might be a good strategy for a short while, but at some point, getting informed so you can take meaningful action becomes more like an obsession. We keep watching even though we have all the important information we need. As we watch, we experience anger, anxiety or sadness. The results of this study suggest that continuing to watch COVID news is bad for mental health because it makes us feel anxious. We would be better off consuming our news the old-fashioned way—in small doses rather than monitoring the news throughout the day. This can keep us sufficiently informed without a negative impact on mental health.
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