We live in a socially-connected digital world. Often, what we read is disturbing. Climate change, polarizing political messages, war and stories of tragedy from all over the globe are front and center before our eyes. Those who are constantly checking stories — those who obsess about this stream of digital news — are more likely to suffer from stress, anxiety and physical health problems, according to a study of the news addicted.
“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,” researcher, Bryan McLaughlin, an associate professor of advertising at the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University, explained in a statement.
Respondents to an online survey of 1,100 U.S. adults were asked by McLaughlin and his colleagues how much 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.”
Typically, the treatment for most addictions is total avoidance, cold turkey, but this is especially challenging when the news is all around and can’t be completely avoided like other addictions.
A little over 16 percent of the people who were surveyed became so involved with certain news stories that the items dominated their waking thoughts, disrupted time with family and friends, and made it difficult to focus on school or work. They reported they were often restless and unable to sleep. These findings were confirmed across all demographic groups. People in this group were categorized as showing signs of ‘severely problematic’ news consumption.
Almost three-quarters of the news-addicted participants reported experiencing “mental ill-being” compared to participants who did not exhibit problematic news consumption. And, similarly, 61 percent of those who were very news-oriented reported that they felt physical ill-being “quite a bit” compared to only 6 percent of the non-addicted.
“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...While we want people to remain engaged in the news, it is important that they have a healthier relationship with the news,” McLaughlin said.
A little over 16 percent of the people who were surveyed became so involved with certain news stories that the items dominated their waking thoughts, disrupted time with family and friends, and made it difficult to focus on school or work.
While total abstinence from the news is challenging, people can at least decide to reduce their consumption. “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,” McLaughlin noted.
The news industry may be fueling the problem. As McLaughlin pointed out, “The economic pressures facing outlets, coupled with technological advances and the 24-hour news cycle have encouraged journalists to focus on selecting ‘newsworthy’ stories that will grab news consumers’ attention.”
The study relied on data collected at one point in time and so cannot really nail down a cause-and-effect relationship between news addiction and emotional or physical effects. But it does suggest that scrolling the news on your phone may not be the idle entertainment you tend to think it is.
The study is published in Health Communication.