Turn Off the News – Cody Westbrook

Turn Off the News – Cody Westbrook

Each year the Mental Health America organization conducts a nation-wide mental health survey called The State of Mental Health in America. As you may imagine, the 2021 report is near catastrophic. The mental health status of young people is worsening; the number of people experiencing frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm is the highest ever recorded by the study; COVID pushed the number of people seeking help for anxiety and depression through the roof; even before COVID numbers of people struggling with mental illness increased over 1 million in a 12-month period.1 People all over our country are struggling to cope with the issues of life, and Christians are not immune to this struggle. Life can be very difficult and thus discouragement and the temptation to be afraid and anxious is very real.

Though the reality of a mental health pandemic in America is not surprising, one of the causes may be. The latest Nielsen Total Audience report says the average American spends over 12 hours per day consuming media. This fact, in and of itself, is troubling. Consider, however, the portion of those 12 hours devoted to watching or reading news. Though the instant availability of news through various outlets like television, social media, and the internet make it difficult to pinpoint an exact number, it is safe to assume that the average American consumes at least 70 minutes of news per day. While that amount may seem insignificant on the surface, a closer examination of the effect of news consumption reveals a significant problem.

Psychologists began sounding the warning about the dangers of news consumption several years ago. In a 2012 article titled The Psychological Effects of TV News, Psychologist Graham C. L. Davey wrote,

We’ve known for a long time that the emotional content of films and television programs can affect psychological health. It can do this by directly affecting your mood, and your mood can then affect many aspects of your thinking and behavior. If the TV program generates a negative mood (anxiety, sadness, anger, or disgust), these experiences will affect how you interpret events in your own life, what types of memories you recall, and how much you will worry about events in your own life.

How does this relate to news? In a 2018 Time article Davey remarked, “The way that news is presented and the way that we access news has changed significantly over the last 15 to 20 years. These changes have often been detrimental to general mental health.”3 Gone are the days of journalists and new anchors presenting a neutral and objective presentation of the facts. In our time, the casual news watcher is forced to endure a sophisticated effort to create and push narratives and sensationalize world events in an effort to sway public opinion to align with that of the news organization. Davey remarked on the sensationalist tendency of news by saying,

There is also an increasing tendency for news broadcasters to ‘emotionalize’ their news and to do so by emphasizing any potential negative outcomes of a story no matter how low the risks of those negative outcomes might be. This is basically scaremongering at every available opportunity in order to sensationalize and emotionalize the impact of a news story… News bulletins also have to compete with entertainment programs for their audience and for their primetime TV slot, and they seem to do this by emphasizing emotionally relevant material such as crime, war, or famine at the expense of more positive material.

These efforts on the part of news organizations have a detrimental effect on the viewer’s mental health. One study revealed that those who watch negative news stories tend to be more sad and more anxious than those who watch positive news stories.5 Negative news also has a tendency to make a person worry so much about personal problems that those problems are unrealistically magnified. Today’s news can cause acute stress symptoms like insomnia, mood swings, aggressive behavior, and even PTSD.”6 Numerous studies identify effects such as lack of productivity, feelings of hopelessness and despair, frustration, and an overwhelming feeling of danger all related to negative news consumption. Without question, those who spend much of their day watching or reading news are likely to suffer negative consequences that will manifest in their thoughts and actions.

Students of Scripture should not be surprised by this information. God’s Word addresses mental health in a number of ways, and in so doing reveals the connection between what we consume and how we think and feel. When the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of violating tradition by neglecting to wash their hands before eating, Jesus responded by correctly identifying true defilement. Later, when explaining His answer to the disciples He said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (Matt. 15:19-20). The point is that action begins in the heart. Murderers do not simply wake up one morning and decide to commit murder. Rather, anger and wickedness are allowed to fester in their heart until finally the fruit is produced (cf. Matt. 5:21-26). Why is this the case? Because “as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Pro. 23:7). If our minds are constantly influenced by things that are negative or evil, eventually fruit of the same kind will be produced. If we fill our minds with profanity, our tongues will follow suit. If we hear lies long enough, we begin to believe them. This is why manipulation is often so successful. Our thoughts precede our actions.

Monitoring exposure is paramount to our spiritual and emotional well-being. Solomon said, “Keep your heart with all diligence for out of it spring the issues of life” (Pro. 4:23). Philippians 4:8 serves as a perfect blueprint for doing it. Paul wrote,

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.

This is the biblical version of the “garbage in, garbage out” principle. Paul says we ought to “meditate,” or, fill our minds with things that are good. Why? Because of the principles stated in the previous paragraph. If we allow our minds to be filled with garbage constantly, then garbage will be produced. But if we fill our minds with things that are good, then good will be produced. We must hold fast to the good (1 Thess. 5:21).

Too many Christians are struggling with depression and discouragement, largely because of world events. But instead of becoming overwhelmed with the negativity of this world we ought to focus on God’s faithfulness (Lam. 3:21). We ought to rejoice (Phil. 4:1) and allow our faith to be strengthened through study and meditation of scripture (Phil. 4:11-13; Ps. 1). Everyone deals with discouragement occasionally, but if we are not careful, we can bring it on unnecessarily. According to scripture and psychology, watching too much news will do just that. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the troubles of the world, try turning off the news.