What is mean world syndrome?

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Sep 18, 2020

What is mean world syndrome?

What happens when the news cycle starts to feel too heavy? It turns out that what we hear and see being reported, could be negatively impacting how we view the world...

The news cycle: it’s inescapable. Whether we chose to get our updates from newspapers, television reports, online, or social media, if we want to keep up with current events, there’s no avoiding it. Yet have you stopped to think about how it could be affecting you, and your view of the world?

There’s no denying it, 2020 has been a tough year. The news cycle has been dominated by injustice, riots, and a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes. While it’s been a heavy few months in the headlines, according to one sociology concept, the news could actually be affecting each of us more than we might think.

What is mean world syndrome?

First coined in the 1970s by Dr George Gerbner, mean world syndrome revolves around the idea that we each develop a cognitive bias where, over time, we start to see the world as more dangerous than it actually is. Thought to develop due to long-term, moderate to heavy exposure to violence-related content through mass media (such as news reports and television shows), those who are affected may experience increased feelings of fear, anxiety, general pessimism, and even feel a heightened state of alertness thanks to the perception of threats around them.

What we see, hear, and read – whether it’s something we know to be true, such as a news report, or something we know is fiction, such as a drama or horror movie – can have a huge influence on our overall beliefs and attitudes about the world around us, and our place in it. The way in which the same piece of information is framed – through cleverly angled photography or video footage, or carefully chosen words – can create an entirely different view of the same set of events.

Since the theory was first proposed, numerous studies have supported the hypothesis, with findings highlighting the emotional toll that violence-related content can have on us. But is there anything that we can do to help combat these negative effects, without cutting ourselves off from the latest news?

Illustration of people watching TV

Illustration | Rosan Magar

How can it affect us?

When something begins to make us feel anxious, uneasy, or even fearful, it can be easy to try to dismiss it as ‘just in our heads’ – yet for many, these feelings can have real, physical symptoms. We spoke to Beverley Hills, counsellor and lead partner at The Practice, to find out more.

“The all-pervasive media keeps us in a constant state of alert, from entertainment to the news. Thanks to increasingly sophisticated production values, our brains sometimes find it confusing to tell the difference between exciting fact and thrilling fiction. We get caught up in a cortisol loop, and begin to believe that dangers exist all around us in real life.

“Mean world syndrome plays right into our innate fears: fear of the unknown, fear of death, FOMO (fear of missing out). It triggers our self-protective fight, flight, or freeze instinct, whereby the body is flooded with hormones and chemicals originally designed to put us on alert in order to save us from the very real big bad world out there in the days before civilisation. Our instincts are there to help defend us from harm, and are the reason we may feel at unease with the unfamiliar.”

When our fight, flight, or freeze instincts are triggered, we often cannot choose how we will react – our bodies do so automatically. We can’t blame ourselves for how we instinctively respond to situations of high stress, anxiety, or trauma. But what can we do to help take back control of how we are thinking, feeling, and reacting to the constant stream of negativity and bad news we see in the media?

Some questions we can ask in order to challenge ourselves are: is this thought fact or fiction? What real evidence is there that these thoughts will come true?

How to combat it

“One of the ways to combat mean world syndrome is by challenging the way we think,” says Beverley. “The first thought that pops into our head is what we call ‘automatic thinking’. This is our conditioning, whether those thoughts, or messages, were given by an attachment figure or the media, it was a repetitive message that played on our fear and it stuck.

“Some questions we can ask in order to challenge ourselves are: is this thought fact or fiction? Am I thinking all-or-nothing thoughts? What real evidence is there that these thoughts will come true? Speaking with a counsellor may also be useful, as they can help to not only unravel these thoughts, but the right therapist can also help identify where they came from, thereby demystifying them.”

Another good option is to ensure there is balance to your social media streams, by also following positive news outlets, or those that give a broader view of current events. Carefully selecting our news sources can help to balance out the negativity that can be rife, and provide you with some much needed uplifting news and events to act as a buffer.

The important thing to remember is, that while it’s good to be aware of what’s happening in the world, the saturation of negative news, and the way stories can be portrayed, is often overwhelming. To protect your mental wellbeing, and ensure you see a more rounded view of events, we need to hunt out and savour the positive moments, too.

Newsfeed positivity

Take stock of who you’re following on social media. Is your feed filled with good vibes, or knee-jerk reactions to negative headlines? Don’t be afraid to mute or unfollow people if they aren’t right for you at the moment.

Pick your sources carefully. Online news platforms like Positive News and the Good News Network provide a daily dose of positivity without cutting you off from the latest headlines. If print media’s more your thing, The Happy Newspaper or Happiful magazine are available via subscription or in stores across the country.

Be kind to yourself. We all go through bad patches. It’s OK to put yourself first. If things are feeling too heavy, take a break from the media and come back when you’re in a stronger place. Your wellbeing should always come first.

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