Wellbeing: Coping with the news

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With terrorism, Brexit and economic troubles dominating 24/7 news, how can we help the young to be more resilient in uncertain times? Dr Stephanie Thornton advises

We live in uncertain times. There is seemingly more economic and political upheaval and insecurity today than there has been for many decades.

There certainly seems to be more of a threat of war in and around Europe and elsewhere and a ruthless terrorism that might turn up anywhere. There are other global worries too, from the end of antibiotics to climate change. Making matters worse, the 24/7 news cycle is relentlessly apocalyptic, our screens filled with dreadful images. And the institution of the news itself is under threat: what’s fake and what’s real in this post-truth world?

It’s a frightening time. Teenagers see all this. More than any previous generation they are “plugged in” to broadcasts of news from one source or another, bathed in a 24/7 pool of Twitter and commentary. And the 24/7 nature of news now means more scrutiny and coverage of horrific events than ever before.

Is this all a contributory factor to the reported rise and rise of anxiety problems in the young?

We must of course remember that there are many causes to the increasing incidence of mental health problems in the young. Some of it is due to a greater social acceptability of admitting such problems. Some is due to better understanding of mental health issues, and more rigorous diagnostic methods. Some is due to general changes in lifestyle – from the problems associated with total immersion in social media to the slippage in the time families spend together.

But the evidence is that “dark news” does indeed generate significant levels of stress in our teenagers, and is almost certainly contributing to the increasing risk of mental health problems for this age group.

Childline has reported a surge in teenagers calling in distress and anxiety about the state of the country and the world. Research shows that our young are stressed about climate change (Ojala 2013, Strife 2012), about war and terrorism (Ahmed 2007; Whalley & Brewin 2007). They are stressed by economic and political changes that put pressure on their families, and that are eroding their prospects for careers (UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 12; Knapp et al 2016).

The young are stressed by media reports describing theirs as a “lost generation” who will struggle to get jobs and may not have an adequate income even if they do find work, who won’t be buying their own home nor matching their grandparents’ material success or lifestyle.

What can we do about the stresses on our young coming from this news cycle? Something needs to be done: already, 10 per cent of our teenagers are known to have a mental health problem of one sort or another – the actual figure is probably higher than this, since severe limitations on mental health resources for this age group mean that there are very likely many more going undiagnosed. Up to 75 per cent of lifetime mental health problems begin in adolescence or the few years immediately following.

We cannot change the news cycle, or reality, though certain prominent figures seem to imagine that they can (such a challenge to the fourth estate – whose freedom has always been a pillar of democracy – is itself a factor in the uncertainties facing our young: who should they trust now?).

Nor, short of removing every tablet and SmartPhone from the under-18s (as if!), can we protect the young from the news, whether mainstream or social media driven: that ship has sailed. And, indeed, insofar as the uncertainties reported in the media define our age, it would surely be wrong to try to keep news from them. This is their world. They need to learn to deal with it, not to avoid it.

In a real sense, “dealing with” the way the world is will necessarily be a personal existential challenge for the individual. No research can tell us how we should react to this or that national or international change, threat or challenge. These are political decisions each teenager must ultimately make for him or herself. But research does suggest various ways in which we can support the young in this enterprise.

Encourage critical-thinking

How teenagers resolve the challenges posed by the political and economic upheavals of our time are their responsibility. But such choices can only be made responsibly in light of good information. Few teenagers have the life experience, the historical perspective or the critical acumen to pick their way through what is a legitimate expectation or fear and what is not, or which commentator or news sources to trust.

Much of what they read is driven more by social media rather than by mainstream journalism, and is funnelled to them by algorithms that reflect past reading and so simply feed existing biases – entrenching attitudes without exposing these to critical evaluation.
Surely, it has never been more important for schools to directly foster historical perspective, and the skills of thinking critically and evaluating everything, from situations to values.

Attitudes and reactions

It is not the situation per se that affects mental health, it is the individual’s reaction to that situation. Individuals who see a bad situation as hopelessly out of their control are likely to suffer a passive distress, whereas individuals who approach such a situation as a challenge, and with a more “can-do” attitude tend to be more resilient (Gordon 2007). Should we encourage the young to be optimistic and empowered in the face of current challenges? Well, yes, and no…

Optimism warning

Groundless optimism is more damaging than pessimism. Early research in positive psychology tended to present optimism as the key to mental health and to a constructive “can-do” response to difficult situations.

Recent research presents a more nuanced view. Optimism that ignores reality and so underestimates problems tends to lead to a poorer performance and to greater disappointment than is experienced by those who took a more pessimistic view of the problem (Norem & Cantor 1989). When problems really are hard, it can be healthier and more effective to acknowledge that than to ignore it – and act accordingly.

Realistic expectations

There are uncertainties in the future for the young – uncertainties that will likely call for a new approach to life. They may well have to accept a material reality that falls short of the expectations set by previous generations, and find ways of coping with risks that today’s highly risk-averse culture finds unacceptable (were the expectations of earlier generations, the demand for safety ever realistic?).

Paradoxically, fostering a “downsizing” of expectations may be beneficial to mental health. High expectations have, historically, been associated with less happiness and mental health than lower expectations: the higher our hopes, the less likely to be fulfilled, the greater the scope for disappointment (Sgroi et al 2017). When times are uncertain, more modest expectations offer protection to the young.

Valuing what really matters

Studies have shown that slum dwellers in Africa or India are often happier than we in the affluent West. How can this be, when they have so little? The fact is that happiness and mental wellbeing do not depend on material success.

Research around the world shows that, so long as your basic needs are met, happiness and mental health reflect the strength of social connections to family and friends, to social support and community. Solidarity can carry people through real disaster, situations (such as the horrors of the Second World War) far worse than anything we face today.

Human connections are what really matter – and often grow in the face of adversity. These are points worth emphasising to the young today.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.

Selected references


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