It’s not hyperbolic to say that almost all the news these days is bad news. A deadly, economically crippling pandemic has now dragged into its seventh month. Wildfires sparked by climate change are still ravaging the West Coast. The country’s political landscape has descended into republic-threatening chaos, and racial, cultural, and economic inequalities are as stark and divisive as ever.
Not only is it all bad — it’s also all around us. Social media usage has increased as people spend more time at home due to Covid-19, and likewise, Nielsen reports that weekly TV watching grew by 1 billion hours at the height of nationwide shelter-in-place orders in April. We’re taking in more media than ever. And often, that means reading or watching gloomy story after gloomier story, or, as New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose called it back in March, “doomsurfing.”
Taken together, this is a dangerous formula. Consuming too much bad news on your phone or the TV can be harmful — studies find it’s bad for your physical and mental health — and the constant bombardment only raises the risk.
Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, first studied the effects of exposure to negative news after the 9/11 attacks. “We found that people who were engaged in more television exposure in the first week after the attacks were more likely to develop mental and physical health effects in the aftermath,” she says.
At the start of the pandemic, Silver and her colleagues published an article predicting that the mental and physical health consequences of the coronavirus news deluge would be similar. But actually, she says, it’s worse. First, the way we consume news is totally different now than two decades ago — endless scrolling wasn’t a thing in 2001.
“But it’s not just that the media landscape has changed,” Silver says. “It’s that the pandemic is a chronic, slowly unfolding disaster. This is a different circumstance because it’s unfolding and escalating. We don’t know how bad it will get, but we know it keeps getting worse.”