I’m sitting here with my best friend Murphy, gazing up at me from his office chair – begging for pets or treats (okay, treats). He’s distracting me from today’s topic – our neverending, always-available, online news feeds. I’m also remembering the days when families took turns reading the daily newspaper - front page, the comic strips, sports page, and obituaries.
There was a hierarchy when it came to sharing the paper. Elders first, kids last. The sound of pages turning, the smell of newsprint, small dark smudges of ink on fingers – all part of the broadsheet experience. If you have no recollection of newspapers being tossed on your front steps by a teenage boy on a bicycle, you’re likely under the age of thirty – and you missed an honored daily ritual.
The front page news featured politics, local accidents, and a bit of international news. But when we turned the pages, there was much more to be discovered. Like a clever political cartoon to be discussed and shared, and a variety of popular columnists who offered advice on everything from family issues to managing money and your astrological fate for the week. Photos were mostly in stunning black and white and lacked details that would frighten or disgust gentle readers. Sunday papers brought a wealth of special items that could take hours to properly share – particularly the full page of comic strips in color. The variety of news and features mostly left us feeling informed, entertained, and pretty okay about the state of the world.
Flash forward to today. Personally, after playing a round of Words with Friends ( An online version of Scrabble) with my competitive cousin in Stafford, England, I move on to my Apple and Google news feeds. There I scroll the screen for stories I feel are important to actually read and only scan the rest of the headlines. And, with very few exceptions, every item is bad news. Negative. A display of humanity’s dark side. Today those stories also offer multiple images showing human foibles and suffering in brilliant color. After a half hour or so of taking in the worst aspects of life on planet Earth, yes, I feel informed and also very discouraged.
So, I‘m wondering what this daily, constant dose of the dark side of being human might be doing to us. We can appreciate the breadth and depth of news now available to us, but is there a limit to how much negativity and fear we ought to absorb in a 24-hour cycle? When the absolute worst human behavior is documented and repeated from one story to the next? When there is little balance to reassure us that humankind can, indeed, be kind?
Researchers agree that overwhelming access to negative news can lead to depression, anxiety, and fear. For vulnerable people, constant exposure to violent images and personal threats implied in news stories can trigger some real mental health problems. And for those of us not at high risk – the great flood of bad news can diminish our own positive belief in the innate good of humankind.
One reason we’re drawn to bad news is that we’re programmed to do so. It’s built-in to our survival mechanism. It’s called the “negativity bias,” and we are hardwired for it. After all – humans made it through 315,000 years of evolution from Australopithecus to Homo sapien because our ancestors learned painful (often deadly) lessons from dangerous encounters with life on Earth. Forget the good times – little threat in those! But close-up experiences with tigers, poison plants, fires, pointy objects, and molten lava are embedded in the human brain. Here’s how a writer for the BBC explains it:
“One potential reason the news affects us so much is the so-called “negativity bias,” a well-known psychological quirk which means we pay more attention to all the worst things happening around us. It’s thought to have evolved to protect us from danger and helps to explain why a person’s flaws are often more noticeable than their assets, why losses weigh on us more heavily than gains, and why fear is more motivating than opportunity.”
To be clear, stress and anxiety reactions are physical and observable in clinical studies of the brain. Blame the sensitive little amygdala - the nuclei in the brain that controls our senses and emotional reaction to threats. The negativity bias protects us. But confronted with a daily stream of threats, what can we do to overcome or, at least, manage life – short of unplugging and camping on a beach (that’s already due to be underwater in a few years due to climate change)?
Many experts suggest meditation that causes changes to the brain and helps us disconnect from irrational fears. Meditation is not an option for me – I’d have to be knocked unconscious to get into the meditative state.
I’m opting for some other suggestions – such as consciously limiting exposure to news. The American Psychological Association has a few other ideas that are within reach for most of us. Among them:
Avoid dwelling on things we have no power to change;
Focus on what is within our power to control;
Do something about it – Go make a difference in a cause you care about;
Stay physically active and socially connected;
Recognize that news will happen with or without us – so tune out when you need to!
Being inundated with negative input throughout the day can affect us in ways we may not immediately recognize. But we do get clues when we’re feeling stressed out, anxious, worried – and not really knowing why. Shut down the news feed, turn on the music, go for a walk and try to be a whole lot more like your dog. My Mr. Murphy only wants treats, walks, pets, and love (though not always in that order). Unlike us, he’s mostly in control of his environment and does things that make his tail wag. He’s my role model and my antidote to online, all-the-time news.
Hoping you seek out some good news this week! Here's a link to one Good News site in case you get desperate! - Let me know how you stay positive at firstname.lastname@example.org - And as always, thanks for your attention and your time!
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