News churn blues and disaster reporting taking crippling toll on mental well-being

By Malibongwe Tyilo 14 July 2021

Image Pixabay

There have never been more channels to access the news, from website to television and radio through to social media. What kind of impact might constant exposure to the news have on our mental health?

Malibongwe Tyilo

At the beginning of 2021, during the US’s 6 January insurrection, Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, gave an interview to USA Today, advising viewers on how to best deal with the constant loop of news and violence on their screens, saying: “You should take breaks from watching the news, especially now because what we’re seeing are the same images over and over again… Even if you feel you’re going to learn something new, you’re probably not. This includes social media too.”

Over the past three decades, there has been significant growth in the body of research into the effects of relative overexposure to news, particularly negative news. And the past 18 months since the onset of the Covid pandemic, as well as varying levels of civil unrest have resulted in further studies looking at that impact in an era where society has even more exposure, due to a combination of the 24-hour television news cycle, and the doom-scrolling of news and images on social media.

According to one such study, published in November 2020, authored by professors from the University of Arkansas and Purdue University in the US, titled COVID-19 and the 24/7 News Cycle: Does Covid-19 News Exposure Affect Mental Health?, “Scholars have shown that greater news media exposure to traumatic events, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, Boston Marathon bombing, the Pulse nightclub massacre, and 9/11, has a negative effect on mental health. From these studies, it is clear that a person does not need to be directly affected by an event in order to suffer psychological distress as a consequence of the event. Instead, news media consumption may be one pathway by which the event becomes distressing, especially when news media about the event are repeatedly viewed.”

And in explaining how said “psychological distress” may affect viewers, in relation to Covid news, the study states, “psychological distress may impede a person’s ability to cope with the many life changes Covid-19 has required, such as fewer social interactions and physical distancing or quarantining. Additionally, work productivity or caregiving needs may be neglected when psychological distress is present… there is also a need to empirically examine the social conditions related to the pandemic, such as increased news coverage and news consumption, that may be related to increased psychological distress.”

That is not to say the study encourages an “ignorance is bliss” approach to current events that might not directly affect one, as a way to avoid psychological distress or maintain a positive mental state. But, such is the abundance of channels disseminating disaster news, that should one choose to, they could spend an entire 24-hour cycle just consuming, jumping from website articles to television news shows to doom-scrolling every related hashtags. And according to this and multiple other studies, that is not beneficial to individual mental health or to society in general.

In fact, quite early on in the Covid pandemic, in March 2020, the World Health Organization published a guideline for the public with regards to news consumption, stating: “Minimize watching, reading or listening to news about Covid-19 that causes you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information only from trusted sources and mainly so that you can take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones. Seek information updates at specific times during the day, once or twice. The sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel worried.”

They continue: “During times of stress, pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in healthy activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly, keep regular sleep routines and eat healthy food. Keep things in perspective.” Admittedly, there is no denying that such advice might bear resonance only for those who are not directly affected. A regular exercise and sleep routine is not a simple matter for residents living in townships and suburbs that are directly affected by violence and looting.

Unsurprisingly, those closest to the violence, are at a greater risk of psychological distress. According to a study titled, Mental health during and after protests, riots and revolutions, “The negative impact of exposure to collective action appears to vary with the level of violence. For collective actions associated with fatalities, proximity to violence was an important predictor for depression. During the 2011 Arab Spring, the prevalence of depression among children in schools closer to Tahrir Square was 62%. Living in riot-affected areas was also associated with depression risk. By contrast, participation in nonviolent collective actions was not associated with depressive sequelae. Case series have identified other risk factors for depression following collective actions, including media coverage, unemployment and poor social cohesion.”

It is important to note, as does the study, that this is not a blanket criticism of collective action, nor is it to say all kinds of collective action have the same result. After all, collective action locally and even abroad played a central role in the dismantling of apartheid. 

As the study goes on to state, “There is some evidence that collective actions may also be associated with better mental health such as reduced depression and suicides. This finding may be explained by collective actions serving as a cathartic experience when people collectively express grievances.”

In the case of the former, and for the majority of citizens who are not directly affected, it is still important to stay informed, hence the existence of platforms such as this very one. 

However, beyond the thought-out articles published by reputable news sources, the studies suggest that it is important to develop a personal strategy with regards to the consumption of the constant loop of violent imagery, especially on social media. Perhaps as per the World Health Organization’s guideline on Covid related news, “seek information only from trusted sources…Seek information updates at specific times during the day, once or twice.” DM/ML

If you need assistance contact the South African Depresssion and Anxxiety Group on 0800 567 567 or Lifeline on 0861 322 322


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  • Have you noticed how the latest ‘cycle’ of news in that so-called bastion of democracy, the US, is focused on the convergence of opinion that the covid virus may have been let loose from a lab in Wuhan. It helps to galvanise the outrage against the rightfully/obviously secretive Chinese regime and its activities. What this distraction fails to do is address the question of what the most effective measures are to control (though not eliminate) this out of control virus ! Such critical insight would require the painful admission that there the politicisation of the virus by mainly Republican party supporting forces has much responsibility to bear. Amidst that scenario, the likes of Zuckerberg who controls much of the social media spaces, laughs all the way to the bank (by keeping contesting parties on ‘site’) and joining the likes ransom (aka Branson) and bozo (aka Bezos) in their flights of phantasy, with a sprinkling of Musk (apologies to elon) to cover the odour ! I think the song ‘What a Wonderful World’ is what we need. Bring it on Satchmo !

  • In the context of your report, the FOMO theory expounded by your fellow writer Emma Dollery makes good sense and explains the phenomenon well.

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