Understanding the Impact of Media Overexposure and Long-Term Health

While the constant presence of social media, 24-hour cable news, and online media has the potential to create a more well-informed public, there is a growing body of pandemic-era studies that have found that overexposure to news may present significant mental and physical health hazards, particularly for older adults.  Woman on her tablet

Learn more about how exposure to news, particularly misleading or negative news coverage, can directly impact long-term health outlooks and what you can do to preserve mental health in an always-online world.

How the News has Changed    

Prior to the dawn of 24-hour news outlets in the 1980’s, the general public was exposed to news coverage either through print media or broadcast news segments – usually an hour-long program intended to hit key points in local and global affairs, then fade into regular programming. In short, the news was easier to put down because there simply wasn’t as much to consume.

That dynamic has changed, and cable news has shifted into its own form of entertainment. Rather than aiming to quickly inform audiences, modern media is designed to keep viewers engaged (and consuming commercials) for as long as possible. This means scarier headlines, more dire language used in reporting, and an increasing comfort with passing unverified reports to audiences to provoke engagement.

This shift is even more profound in online content, where algorithms evaluate a viewer’s engagement (clicks, up/down votes, shares, and comments) to decide whether or not to show similar content in the future. Combine this with the discovery that people are far more likely to engage with and share negative or upsetting content and you begin to see the problem: a negative article gets more interactions than a positive one, leading to exposure to more negative news in the future.

While researchers and scientists have theorized that extended, long-term exposure to negative news could endanger mental health, the COVID-19 pandemic’s unique combination of social isolation and deluge of negative news allowed researchers to substantively test these concepts in a large population for the first time.

How negative media affects us mentally and physically

Studies have found that exposure to as little as 15 minutes of negative news broadcasts can increase anxiety, increase negative moods, and lower an individual’s sense of wellbeing even after a program has ended.

In an interview with VeryWellMind, social worker Annie Miller MSW, LCSW-C, LICSW suggested that negative news can trigger a fight-or-flight response in viewers, increasing the presence of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in a viewer, leading to increased fatigue, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and depression.

These stress responses can negatively impact health at any age, but can have far more dire consequences for older adults and those managing a long-term or chronic condition.

Furthermore, studies have found that older adults are more susceptible to what is called the “prior exposure” or “illusory truth” effect – a term used to describe the tendency in people to believe something false if they are exposed to that falsehood multiple times.

This means that prolonged exposure to false or misleading reporting can gradually chip away at an individual’s understanding of the world around them, leading to feelings of depression, hostility, or an unwillingness to engage with the world around them, ultimately leading to social isolation and its negative effects on long-term health.

How to tell if media is having a negative effect on your wellbeing

Curious if media is taking a toll on your wellbeing? Ask yourself the following:

  • Do you feel anger, anxiety, or stress after catching up on the news, even if you were previously having a good day?
  • Do you have trouble turning off the news, closing social media apps, or otherwise “stepping away” from news coverage?
  • Do you have trouble focusing on more immediate tasks and experiences because you are thinking about current events or “the state of things”?
  • Have you engaged in heated discussions or arguments with friends or family about current events? Has this led to a decrease in social interactions or a change in whom you speak with?
  • Do you notice yourself engaging less with others because you worry you will be “out of the loop” on current events?
  • Do you experience headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, or general anxiety with no known medical cause?

Staying informed while preserving mental health

If you answer “yes” to any of the above questions, you may benefit from being more strategic in how you engage with media. Below are some tips for how to stay informed without causing yourself undue stress:

  • Set boundaries around news consumption: Limit your exposure to news to a single session a day. Avoid checking your phone for updates or putting on the news during other parts of the day “just to catch up.” Also, try to avoid watching the news at least an hour before bed, as it may contribute to difficulty sleeping.
  • Be selective in the types of news you consume: Try to avoid media about topics that upset you. Instead, do your best to stay informed on topics that are relevant to your life and well-being.
  • Take regular breaks: The great thing about the news is that it just keeps happening! If you are feeling overwhelmed about current events, do yourself a favor and take a break from consuming news for a few days – there will be plenty waiting for you when you end your sabbatical. Use this time to engage with a hobby you enjoy, take a walk, meditate, or work on an engaging task.
  • Limit exposure to topics that make you upset: If a particular story or type of story leaves you feeling upset, do yourself a favor and avoid engaging with that type of content.  If you engage with the news online or through social media, consider using your platform’s “show me less of this” feature to improve your overall experience.
  • Vet your news sources: Not all news outlets operate on the same principles, especially heavily-partisan news outlets. Many of these sources of news intentionally skew their statements in order to maintain engagement with outrage. The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism has curated an incredibly useful set of tools for evaluating the accuracy and intent of a news outlet.

It’s important for all of us to consider how media may be impacting our overall wellbeing.

To learn more about how our services promote long-term mental and physical wellbeing, and how we have helped New Yorkers live happier, healthier lives for more than 40 years, call us today, request a free in-home care guide, or read testimonials from SelectCare clients.