Books, TV, and friendly chitchat — those make the world seem rosy. The internet, on the other hand, makes everything look awful.
Those are the impressions of thousands of retirees in China over the age of 50, according to one 2013 study that sought to measure people’s belief in the “just world theory,” which posits that people get what they deserve, both good and bad.
While traditional forms of communication reinforce an optimistic picture of the world, the study finds, the internet destroys older Chinese people’s impression that life is good.
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences collected data on 12,309 retirees. They asked people about their belief in a just world according to the General Belief in a Just World Scale, which ranges from 6 to 36. A higher score indicates a greater belief the world is just.
Here’s how the scores broke down, based on which source respondents used most often to get news.
In China, much of the media people consume is heavily censored by the government. In one 2014 ranking, the country ranked 175th out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press. The result is that people learn from traditional media sources that their home country is generally prosperous, with personal work ethic as the backbone of the nation’s progress.
The new study suggests the internet, despite heavy censorship, crumbles this illusion.
“In China, compared to the state-controlled newspapers and television, the Internet often covers more multifaceted content, specifically including more information, reports, and news that are negative,” the researchers write. “Excessive exposure to such news might negatively influence some individuals’ perceptions and judgments of how society and the world are not so stable, just, or satisfactory.”
The findings uphold prior research involving dozens of meta-analyses that tie internet use to life dissatisfaction, regardless of where users are from.
When people browse the internet, they are exposed to a much wider scope of news — not all of it uplifting — that may taint their worldview. Online, people also turn to social media, which studies have repeatedly shown can lead to feeling worse about your own life.
The internet isn’t the only medium that changes people’s impression of the world.
A popular theory in media studies, known as “Mean World Syndrome,” suggests all the blood, crime, and violence featured at the top of most news segments leads people to falsely believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is.
The internet may be a vast wasteland of cat videos and equally horrible comments on those videos, but it’s also where humans pool their knowledge.
And that’s enlightening.
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