Political ads might cause clinical anxiety

April 18, 2021
If campaign ads leave you feeling a bit stressed-out, you're not alone. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

If campaign ads leave you feeling a bit stressed-out, you're not alone. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Exposure to campaign ads increased anxiety levels among U.S. adults on both sides of the aisle during the 2016 election cycle, a finding that may not surprise anyone, though local races likely added to collective anxiety alongside the rancorous presidential race.

Analyzing the reported viewing habits of 28,199 people, the researchers behind a new study, published April 3 in Social Science & Medicine, found that people saw 503 political ads on average over a 10-month period surrounding the 2016 election. Overall, a 1% increase in ad exposure corresponded with a .06% increase in the odds of a doctor telling them they had anxiety. Strikingly, each time a person's exposure to campaign ads doubled, the odds of a doctor diagnosing them with anxiety went up 4.25%.

"I think a 4% increase in the odds with each doubling, if you think about how often it doubles if you go from one to two, two to four, four to eight, eight to 16, etc., that adds up," said Jeff Niederdeppe, a professor at Cornell University and the lead author of the paper. "Nobody sees one ad."

The results did not seem to be overly skewed by the uniquely divisive race between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump — the researchers calculated that the average person potentially saw 370 ads for non-presidential races and only 133 for the presidential race. They also found no significant correlation for diagnoses of depression, insomnia or cancer, the latter of which served as the control.

The study took self-reported viewing and health data from participants in the Simmons National Consumer Survey who watched English-language TV. For each respondent, the survey typically covers about a month of viewing habits. Researchers used survey data from five different waves between November 2015 and March 2017, with each wave completed during a different three-month period. Since the survey is conducted by mail, not every respondent took it at the same time, so the researchers projected each respondent's political ad viewing separately.

The researchers then cross-referenced TV watching patterns with political ad data from the Kantar Campaign Media Analysis Group to estimate how many political ads each person had likely seen over a 10-month period before the survey, assuming their viewing habits remained consistent.

"It's got error, for sure, but I think it's as good of a guess as I've seen anyone being able to do, because it's based on routine patterns of exposure," Niederdeppe told The Academic Times.

Previous research has also shown that politics causes poor mental health outcomes. After the American Psychological Association received anecdotal reports from members that their patients were expressing increasing anxiety about the election, the APA asked about politics-induced stress in a poll for the first time in August 2016; 52% of Americans said the election was a significant source of stress. In 2019, a study in PLOS ONE also reported that 38% of respondents said politics made them feel stressed, while 4.1% said it made them feel suicidal. 

Niederdeppe and his co-authors wondered if TV ads could be partially to blame. It made sense to him that the results of the study showed a nonpartisan effect, he said, because the ads "paint a really bleak picture of the world, and unlike other forms of political communication, you have the music and the imagery to kind of bolster that — scary music, 'The world's going to go to hell if this other candidate gets elected.'"

The study, "Exposure to Televised Political Campaign Advertisements Aired in the United States 2015-2016 Election Cycle and Psychological Distress," published April 3 in Social Science & Medicine, was authored by Jeff Niederdeppe, Rosemary J. Avery, Jiawei Liu, Brendan Welch, Emmett Tabor and Nathaniel W. Lee, Cornell University; Sarah E. Gollust, University of Minnesota; Laura Baum and Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University; and Colleen L. Barry, Johns Hopkins University.

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