Is the news giving you 'Mean World Syndrome'?

The media has amplified all that’s scary in the world and contributed to a growing polarization of opinions.

Lisa Machado 9 minute read June 3, 2020
Young girl holding teddybear

Over-consumption of media can warp the way we perceive the world. Stock/Getty

If the daily onslaught of COVID news, and now riots — oh, not to mention the deluge of locusts descending on India — has you feeling like the world has suddenly become a much more dangerous place, you’re not alone.

It doesn’t take much more than five minutes on social media to get that stomach-clenching sense that disaster lurks around every corner and yet, here we sit, glued to our screens, waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Forget that saying about how “bad things come in threes” — it feels like we are well over our quota for the year, and it’s only June.

But if you are having trouble staying optimistic, don’t feel too badly. Turns out that there’s a documented reason you feel crappy about the state of the world.

It’s called ‘Mean World Syndrome,” and it’s a thing. First observed by U.S. communications professor George Gerbner, Mean World Syndrome describes the phenomenon of developing an unhealthy or unrealistic world view after consuming a lot of mass media.

“Mean World Syndrome creates a perception that the world is more hostile, harsh and cruel,” says Christopher Ferguson, professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. “This then causes you to take extra steps to protect yourself, and then you end of enhancing what you were scared of.”

Ferguson, who also wrote the book, Media Psychology 101, says that this is problematic, and more than a little ironic, since today’s world is actually safer than ever.

“Any metric you look at, we are better off today than any other time in history,” he says. “We are in one of the most peaceful and prosperous eras of our time. Our economies are better, our healthcare is better. But when you consider the way the media is shaping our perceptions of the world, it’s easy to lose sight of that.”

And lose sight we do — and have. Ferguson says that the 24 hours a day news cycle available to us makes information about tragedy accessible with just one click, contributing to a feeling of overwhelm that the world is bad and scary, a perception perpetuated by the media.

American rapper Killer Mike spoke to Atlanta protestors last week, pleading for calm. He also referenced the role that media, particularly CNN, is playing in sparking fear, anger and hatred.

“Bad news sells,” says Ferguson. ‘And we can’t escape it. Fear, disease, these are the things that get attention.”

But it’s not just the daily tightly wrapped parcels of negativity coming at us through our televisions, phones and computers that are contributing to the sense that the world is essentially going to hell in a hand-basket. It’s also the freedom that people have to share just about anything, right down to their deepest, darkest thoughts and beliefs.

Social media platforms give just about anyone a voice, creating a disturbing vacuum of in-the-moment perspectives and opinions that are spewed into the virtual atmosphere to await the endorphin boosting thumbs-up of others. But there is another side to this dysfunctional reassurance-seeking that is also ugly, judgmental, and angry. And this, says Ferguson, not only fuels discord and hatred, but also helps to shape our perception of the world.

“If you were to ask me how the constant barrage of negativity is affecting us, well, my answer would be badly,” he says. “Social media has not only amplified all that’s scary in the world, but it has also contributed to growing polarization of opinions and beliefs. We now get the chance to show everyone how righteous we are. ”

And while one could argue that access to a variety of perspectives and experiences is good for us and can help shape the lens through which we see the world into one that is open and more inclusive, Ferguson says that just the opposite is happening.

“In the 80’s, most of us watched the same few channels, we all got the same news and the information was interchangeable between the channels. Maybe it was not always true, but there was a feeling of consensus,” he says. “Today, news media caters to any view. You can actually select news that will support your world view.”

And therein lies the rub of freedom of speech. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

“I read op-eds and shake my head,” says Ferguson. “So much virtue signalling. If you tell someone they are an asshole for not wearing a mask, you think they are going to listen to that?”

The fact that the media provides space for people to express their morals and values for all to see regardless how hateful or nonsensical is in itself tiresome, and if it stopped there, maybe we would sleep a bit better at night. But moral shaming and passing judgement on others not only opens the door to vitriol and shaming, but perpetuates the notion that it’s acceptable to attack those whose views differ from ours. And perhaps more damning, it colours the way we see and understand the world.

“We have the worst president on record, for sure,” says Ferguson. “But he gets it right very occasionally, and when he says that the mainstream media is anti-American, I tend to think he is right.”

He points to the coverage of COVID-19 and how the media painted a picture of the United States as handling the pandemic poorly — a perspective that he says, was inflated and untrue.

“News media kept saying that we were the worst, and there was this whole anti-American sentiment about the how bad the virus was here,” he says. ‘But we weren’t the worst. Certainly not worse than most European countries, yet this is the perception that the rest of the world has.”

A similar vein of is culminating around the riots and protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.

“Does we have a big problem? Yes, of course,” says Ferguson. “The images from the riots are harrowing. The concerns are legitimate and yes, we need to do better. But are the protests what the media is portraying them to be? I’m not sure.”

Since Floyd’s death, the media has been flooded with images of police and protester clashes, fires, and angry racial tension, but Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist at Fielding Graduate University in California, says that what we are seeing isn’t a clear depiction of what’s actually happening. In fact, what we are seeing and what’s reality — as always in the case with media — is in some instances startlingly different.

“By and large, the protests have not been violent,” she says. “And the looting is happening concurrently, but it isn’t a part of the protests or the riots, yet it looks like it is. So we are left with the perception of so much lawless behaviour, aggression and anger and suddenly a world that we already perceived as dangerous feels that much more so.”

Not only are we living in fear, perhaps feeling like we are under attack, we are doing so based on a damaging trifecta of inaccurate and manipulated depictions of information, and information that may be skewed towards a certain political leaning as well as the quest for readership numbers. What’s worse, we seek comfort in it.

“When we are afraid, we seek information to feel less afraid and better prepared,” says Rutledge.

But what happens when there is a problem with that information?

“Look at COVID,” she says. “The information has been inconsistent, and politicized. So not only are we left with a lack of confidence in what we are being told, we also don’t know who to believe. That uncertainty drives tension and fear.”

It also muddies the waters of guiding people towards the right thing to do.

“Take masks, for example,” she says. “They don’t protect you, they protect others. People who say that they aren’t going to wear a mask either don’t care or don’t get the contribution they are making to society. So then we end up with this ‘live free or die’ mentality that helps no one.”

Rutledge says that the current civil unrest in the United States has been exacerbated by the government and the way the media has portrayed it. But just like people can choose what station to tune into, they can also choose to take a moment and consider the messages they are getting in a critical and discerning way.

“If you can overcome the anxiety caused by the news and images of the protests and riots, you can start to separate out fear that’s real and fear that’s being driven by anger and uncertainty,” she says.

The ability to do this effectively has a lot to do with how much media we are taking in.

“People need to not be over-consumers of media,” says Rutledge, referring to the videos of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11. “Those videos played over and over throughout that day. And we are seeing that with the riot images. At some point, you need to recognize that you aren’t learning anything new, that your feelings of fear and anxiety are only being exacerbated, and that it’s time to stop watching and reading.”

Rutledge, who doesn’t check social media until she is out of bed and had a coffee, says that one indication that you are getting too much media is physical responses to stress such as stomach upset and trouble sleeping. These reactions also tell you that you have waited to long to step away from your phone or TV.

“Don’t let stress determine your health,” she says, recommending repetitive activities like chewing gum and baking as antidotes to feelings of anxiety. “We are not wired to override our fear responses with thought, but we can use activity as distraction.”

Rutledge also advises that people take more care to pay attention to where they get their information from, get more than one source and verify those sources.

“You can’t fix stupid,” she says. “But you can control what you read.”

Ferguson agrees.

“Don’t immerse yourself in news media that stirs hatred and misinformation,” he says, adding that now is the time, perhaps more than ever before, for all of us to be the good we want to see in the world.

“If you feel we need compassion, speak to that. You want to see people work together? Then be a leader and bring communities together,” he says. “It will be small voices at first, but it will grow.”

Maybe that’s all we need as an antidote to Mean World Syndrome — little more positivity, a louder voices and less screen time.

Lisa Machado is Executive Producer of Follow her at @iamlisamachado