From the COVID-19 pandemic and the spread of monkeypox to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, school shootings and devastating wildfires, there's been no lack of doom and gloom lately, and many folks are glued to the news.
For more than 16% of people, however, compulsive news watching can be seriously problematic and is linked to a host of physical and mental health woes, a new study shows.
“For individuals who find themselves constantly thinking about and checking the news, news consumption may be having a more negative impact on their well-being than they realize,” said study author Bryan McLaughlin, an associate professor of advertising at Texas Tech University College of Media & Communication, in Lubbock.
People who report high levels of problematic news-watching experience great stress over prolonged periods.
"If this leads to consistently high levels of inflammation, this may have adverse effects on an individual's physical health," McLaughlin said.
And things have likely gone from bad to worse with the torrent of distressing news in recent years.
“COVID has certainly been a big factor, as well as all of the political conflict and divisiveness,” he said. “The more things there are to be concerned about, the more likely people probably are to get deeply drawn into the news.”
For the new study, McLaughlin's team surveyed 1,100 U.S. adults in August of last year. People were asked if they agreed with statements such as, “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.”
Folks were also asked if, and how often, they experienced stress and anxiety, as well as fatigue, pain, poor concentration and digestive issues.
The survey revealed that people who reported problematic news consumption were more likely to experience mental and physical symptoms than people who invested less in the news. Specifically, 61% of people with severe levels of problematic news-watching reported that they feel sickly “quite a bit” or “very much,” compared with 6% of other people.
There are benefits to staying informed about current events, McLaughlin said, but if the news is causing duress, cut back and pay attention to your feelings.
“Being more aware of how the news affects you and learning to bring attention to the here and now are things that may help enable someone to continue following the news without becoming overly invested,” he said.
The report was published Aug. 24 in the journal Health Communication.
The findings mirror what clinical psychologist Amanda Spray has been seeing in her practice recently.
“This is likely due to the multiple health and social crises of the last several years in combination with the increased access to news 24/7 from a variety of outlets,” said Spray, director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
“Problematic news consumption can significantly contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety, which in turn can have deleterious effects on our physical health,” said Spray, who reviewed the study findings.
But going cold turkey isn't necessarily the answer, she said.
“If someone notices they are feeling more depressed and anxious, having trouble pulling themselves away from the news for long periods, or it is causing them to be less engaged in other areas of their lives, they may want to examine how much news they are consuming," Spray suggested.
This starts with writing down how much time is spent watching the news.
“After monitoring use to get a clear idea of where their current usage is, one can identify how much news media they would like to ideally be consuming and gradually reduce their usage to a level that causes less interference, but still allows them to remain engaged with their community," she said.
Dr. Ami Baxi, a psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agreed.
“If watching the news — specifically difficult or traumatizing news — unnerves someone, it is OK to cut back on news intake and take breaks,” she said.
Instead, take in information in shorter bursts when you're feeling calm, Baxi urged.
“Frequent or continuous exposure to problematic news exposure may be especially dangerous for folks with underlying mental or physical problems,” said Baxi, who has no ties to the research. “It can trigger PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] symptoms or keep patients in states of elevated anxiety for prolonged periods of time, and it can also increase substance use.”
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers tips on staying informed without making anxiety worse.
SOURCES: Bryan McLaughlin, PhD, associate professor, advertising and brand strategy, College of Media and Communication, Texas Tech University, Lubbock; Amanda Spray, PhD, clinical psychologist, director, Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center, NYU Langone Health, New York City; Ami Baxi, MD, psychiatrist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Health Communication, Aug. 24, 2022