The world is full of newsworthy events, spread to us via diverse media channels, that warrant our attention. Unfortunately, these events are often concerning or distressing but we feel compelled to understand them and stay informed about them anyway. In the recent past, for example, there has been a seemingly constant flow of disconcerting events, including a pandemic, a highly contentious U.S. presidential election culminating in an attempted insurrection, large-scale protests, mass shootings, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, life-threatening floods and devastating wildfires.
It is likely that, for many people witnessing these events in the news, the experience may cause stress and anxiety. In addition, for those who become drawn in to the unfolding tragedies and dramas, being exposed to a 24-hour news cycle of continually evolving events can have serious impacts on mental and physical wellbeing. This is the finding of a new research study that investigates the consequences of problematic news consumption on the general well-being of people.
“Witnessing these events unfold in the news can bring about a constant state of high alert in some people, kicking their surveillance motives into overdrive and making the world seem like a dark and dangerous place,” explained study first author Bryan McLaughlin, associate professor of Advertising in the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University.
“For these individuals, a vicious cycle can develop in which, rather than tuning out, they become drawn further in, obsessing over the news and checking for updates around the clock to alleviate their emotional distress. But it doesn’t help, and the more they check the news, the more it begins to interfere with other aspects of their lives.”
Known colloquially as news addiction, problematic news consumption is defined in this study as becoming immersed in the news (transportation) as well as consumed with thoughts about the news (preoccupation), attempting to alleviate feelings of threat by consuming more news (misregulation), experiencing a loss of control over consumption of the news (underregulation), and devoting less time to other aspects of one’s life (interference). McLaughlin and his colleagues, Dr. Melissa Gotlieb and Dr. Devin Mills, hypothesized that those with higher levels of problematic news consumption would experience greater mental and physical ill-being than those with lower levels of problematic news consumption.
The experts obtained data by means of an online survey completed by 1,100 U.S. adults. In the survey, people were asked about the extent to which they agreed with statements like “I become so absorbed in the news that I forget the world around me”, “my mind is frequently occupied with thoughts about the news”, “I find it difficult to stop reading or watching the news”, and “I often do not pay attention at school or work because I am reading or watching the news”.
Mental ill-being was assessed using nine items in the survey that captured feelings of stress (e.g., “I was in a state of nervous tension”) and anxiety (e.g., “I felt I was close to panic”) in the previous month. In addition, respondents answered questions about their experience of physical ailments, such as fatigue, pain, disrupted sleep, poor concentration, and gastrointestinal issues.
The results, published in the journal Health Communication, revealed four categories of problematic news consumption behavior – severe, moderate, minimal and non-problematic. Overall, 16.5 percent of people surveyed showed signs of ‘severely problematic’ news consumption. Such individuals frequently became so immersed and personally invested in news stories that the stories dominated their waking thoughts, disrupted time with family and friends, made it difficult to focus on school or work, and contributed to restlessness and an inability to sleep.
Perhaps not surprisingly, people with higher levels of problematic news consumption were significantly more likely to experience mental and physical ill-being than those with lower levels, even when controlling for demographics, personality traits, and overall viewing.
In particular, 73 percent of those recognized to have severe levels of problematic news consumption reported experiencing mental ill-being “quite a bit” or “very much,” compared to only 8 percent of all other participants in the study. Similarly, 61 percent of those with severe levels of problematic news consumption reported experiencing physical ill-being “quite a bit” or “very much,” compared to only 6.1 percent of all other study participants.
According to McLaughlin, the findings are “alarming” and show that there is a need for focused media literacy campaigns to help people develop a healthier relationship with the news. “While we want people to remain engaged in the news, it is important that they have a healthier relationship with the news,” he said.
“In most cases, treatment for addictions and compulsive behaviors centers on complete cessation of the problematic behavior, as it can be difficult to perform the behavior in moderation. In the case of problematic news consumption, research has shown that individuals may decide to stop, or at least dramatically reduce, their news consumption if they perceive it is having adverse effects on their mental health.”
“For example, previous research has shown that individuals who became aware of and concerned about the adverse effects that their constant attention to sensationalized coverage of COVID-19 was having on their mental health reported making the conscious decision to tune out.”
“However, not only does tuning out come at the expense of an individual’s access to important information for their health and safety, it also undermines the existence of an informed citizenry, which has implications for maintaining a healthy democracy. This is why a healthy relationship with news consumption is an ideal situation.”
In addition, the study also identifies the contribution of the news industry to fueling the problem. Journalists are encouraged to focus on “newsworthy” stories that will grab the attention of consumers, and news channels that then give non-stop coverage of unfolding stories feed into the fascination that some people experience. The authors call for a wider discussion about the news industry’s involvement in the issue of problematic consumption.
In conclusion, the authors state that for certain types of people, the conflict and drama that characterize newsworthy stories not only grab their attention and draw them in, but also can lead to a maladaptive relationship with the news. “Thus, the results of our study emphasize that the commercial pressures that news media face are not just harmful to the goal of maintaining a healthy democracy, they also may be harmful to individuals’ health.”