A Minnesota-based gym chain called Life Time caused a stir among its clients—and the rest of the internet, once the New York Times picked up the story—when it announced its decision to remove all cable news programming, left- and right-leaning alike, from the big-screen TVs in its 130 locations around the country. Amid cries of censorship, Life Time’s statement on Twitter emphasized that it was a decision borne of “significant member feedback received over time” and that the move was in line with the gym’s “healthy way of life philosophy.”
The subtext is that watching cable news could harm your health—a maxim that might sound downright intuitive in this day and age. But among scientists, the jury is still out. It’s true that certain types of news seem to have a measurable impact on our mental health: Researchers from the University of Toronto found that journalists who regularly deal with images of extreme violence in the course of their work are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and alcoholism. The authors conclude that “frequent, repetitive viewing of traumatic images can come with adverse psychological consequences.” Interestingly (and worryingly), the opposite can also be true: Increased exposure to these images can lead to desensitization, a kind of emotional numbing effect as they become used to the horrors that come with the job. While non-journalists won’t bear the brunt of this, it follows that stories of police brutality, terrorist attacks, and other violence could start to wear on our emotional well-being (or at the other end of the spectrum, our ability to respond emotionally in the first place), particularly if we’re always plugged in.
Importantly, though, cable news in and of itself has no such effect. Although individual elections might affect our stress levels—Duke scientists tracking the stress hormone cortisol in McCain voters vs. Obama voters on the night of the 2008 election saw a spike among members of the losing party—the steady drumbeat of political developments doesn’t seem to do the same. One 2017 study of older adults, the largest consumers of cable news, exposed volunteers to Fox News, MSNBC, and PBS (respectively deemed right, left, and center), then monitored their psychological, physiological, and cognitive responses. In short, there wasn’t one: “Cable news watching had no effect on psychological stress, physiological stress, or cognitive function.
This remained true even if the news exposures were discordant with participants’ political affiliation.” While a 2012 study at Texas A&M found that New York Times stories about Obama’s success led to higher cortisol levels than those about Mystic Pizza or Taylor Swift among the college’s conservative student body, the authors were quick to note that “the effects we observed were within the range of normal, daily variations in cortisol,” and they pushed back against the notion of political coverage as a kind of “secondary smoke” for partisan opponents. So from an empirical perspective, it seems that both watching and reading the news, even when it scares us or disappoints us or we disagree with it, are relatively safe habits.
Natalie Bushaw, a spokeswoman for Life Time, assured the Times that when it comes to cable news at the gym, this went beyond Trump. “This has been a growing issue over years, not weeks or months,” she said. That may have been more about the gym’s desire to combat accusations of censorship in these polarized times. But she’s right that people have worried about information overload being bad for one’s health for a long time: As early as the 1840s, Victorians feared for the fate of “brain workers”—the academics, financiers, and clergymen inundated with information at rates that had previously been impossible. As the advent of commercial telegraphs and the mass production and distribution of pamphlets and periodicals radically altered the speed and frequency of communication, doctors advised those facing mental and emotional overload to “take rest,” literally checking out and retiring to, say, Davos for months or even years at a time.
A six-month vacation from reality may sound tempting, perhaps even healthy considering the current state of the world. Which brings us to the crux of the issue: Things have obviously changed fundamentally since the 1840s, but they’ve also changed since 2016. It’s worth noting that while the most recent of these studies was published in 2017, volunteers were recruited between July 2014 and May 2015—in other words, well before the Trump administration or the #MeToo moment. Our current 24-hour news cycle, dominated by stories of sexual assault, environmental crises, and impending nuclear disaster, may well be more distressing than it has been in the past, and plenty has been written about what we can do to cultivate a healthier “media diet” in response. There are cases in which limiting our exposure is in fact a valid and worthwhile course of action: It’s OK (and probably even advisable) to go to bed on an election night instead of obsessively refreshing the Upshot’s robot predictor needle. And there’s no shame in choosing not to bear witness to every moment of violence, as long as we don’t shy away from what they tell us about the world we live in.
Life Time has offered its customers a compromise: The channels that have been removed from large-screen TVs are still available on smaller ones, and the gym’s Wi-Fi allows them to tune in to whatever they like on mobile phones. While it may not be scientifically necessary to take cable TV off its biggest screens, the gym is simply letting its customers make a choice about where, whether, and how much they want to engage—and that seems like a perfectly reasonable step to me.
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