For anyone who lives on the East Coast of the U.S. last week meant listening to the news about the approach of Hurricane Irene, over and over and over. As an East Coast resident, I can tell you we were inundated with information and followed the storm from the Bahamas as it slowly made its way toward us. On one hand, this information is good. Too many people died, too many families lost their homes and my thoughts and prayers go out to those families.
Without this preparation and these warnings, would more people have suffered? Would the death toll be higher? Certainly the chances of this happening are high and the evacuations and warnings helped us understand how our lives could be impacted.
On the other hand, how much news is too much? When does a good-intentioned warning become an anxiety provoking newscast? There have been several studies through the year linking watching too much television to depression and anxiety:
- In 2009, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard Medical School found that each hour of television increased the chance of becoming depressed by 8 percent.
- A study divided news shows into three categories: negative, neutral and positive and randomly assigned participants to watch the shows. Those watching negative news shows became more depressed and anxious and exaggerated the importance of their own worries more often.
- The Center for Media and Public Affairs did a study on news stories about murder. Between 1990 and 1995, network news coverage of murder increased over by over 300 percent. Viewers would inaccurately assume that the murder rate in this country was increasing and their fears therefore increase. But in actuality, murder rates decreased during this time by 13 percent.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states, “Seeing and hearing about local and world events, such as natural disasters, catastrophic events, and crime reports, may cause children to experience stress, anxiety, and fears.” But it isn’t limited to only children. Adults, as we can see from the studies above, also have a negative reaction to negative news casts.
The recent hurricane, the bombardment of news that our economy is bad, even the constant coverage on our legislators inability to come to an agreement about the debt ceiling fill us with dread. Stories of murder make us afraid to go outside. These are situations we can’t control (at least not at the moment - we can vote for different representation if we don’t agree with who currently is in Congress) and have no way of resolving. Helplessness leads to hopelessness and that is when depression and anxiety seep in.
So what should you do? It is important to many people to keep up with current affairs, to know what is going on in the world and they feel news coverage such as that of Hurricane Irene help them be prepared. If you feel anxious or depressed after watching the news, but don’t want to give it up, limit how much you watch. For example, if you had checked on the progress of last week’s storm once or twice a day, then turned the channel or moved on to another activity, you might not be as overwhelmed.
Other ideas include:
- Understand that news coverage can inform but it can also desensitize you to your surroundings or it can activate your fight or flight mechanism, creating stress on your body. Accept that limited news will give you the information you need.
- Check independent online news sites or blogs for additional reporting. Network news, unfortunately, gets higher ratings and makes more money the more you watch, therefore, news can be sensationalized. Independent news stations not connected to major networks may give a more balanced news report.
- Make sure you have balance in your life. Get up, exercise, go out with friends, spend time with your family to balance out the negative with positive interactions.
- If you find watching the news is interfering with sleep, limit your time watching the news to morning or afternoon and watch more pleasant shows in the evening.
If there is negative news on, such as a natural catastrophe, limit how much your children can watch and make sure you talk with them about what is going on, why it is important, what they can do to better feel in control of the situation and how much it is going to impact their life. Be sure to listen to them and let them express their concerns.
“Children and the News,” 2002, The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
“Network News in the Nineties,” 1997, Editors: Dr. S. Lichter and Dr. Linda S. Lichter, Media Monitor, Center for Media and Public Affairs
"Study Links TV and Depression, 2009, Feb 3, Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times