Put it down. Don’t open it. Leave it alone. Walk away and no-one will get hurt. These are the likely thoughts of increasing numbers of social media users involved in the almost obsessive behaviour referred to colloquially as “Doomscrolling”.
In an era of pandemic, climate crisis, failure of democracy, school shootings, war and family violence it seems our social media habits can lead some people to mental and physical health issues.
A new paper in Health Communication looked at what the researchers termed “problematic news consumption”.
The researchers surveyed 1,100 adults about their connection to the 24-hour news world and followed up with questions about their mental and physical health.
They found that 16.5% of respondents showed signs of “severely problematic” news consumption, where news stories dominate their waking thoughts, disrupt family time, distract them from work or school, and add to restlessness or an inability to sleep.
“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,” says Bryan McLaughlin, Associate Professor of Advertising at the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University in the US.
“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.”
McLaughlin and his colleagues, Dr Melissa Gotlieb and Dr Devin Mills, analysed data from an online survey of 1,100 US adults. 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.”
According to McLaughlin, the findings show a need for focused media literacy campaigns to help people develop a “healthier relationship” with the news.
“We want people to remain engaged in the news,” he says.
“Tuning out comes at the expense of an individual’s access to important information for their health and safety, and undermines the existence of an informed citizenry, which has implications for maintaining a healthy democracy.”
In addition, the study also questions whether the news industry may be fuelling the problem.
“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,” says McLaughlin.
“The results of our study emphasise that commercial pressures news media face are not just harmful to the goal of maintaining a healthy democracy, they also may be harmful to individuals’ health.”
Limitations of this study include reliance on a data collected at one point in time, where the authors could not establish the exact relationship between problematic news consumption and mental and physical ill-being.