Obsessively Watching News May Lead to Physical & Mental Illness, New Study Finds

Nearly half of participants showed signs of 'problematic news consumption'

People who obsess over the news are more likely to suffer from increased anxiety, stress, and depression, according to a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Health Communication.

Researchers found that problematic news consumption is negatively related to physical and mental health, as the news consistently focuses on negative and threatening issues and events.

“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.

“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,” he added.

McLaughlin and colleagues analyzed data from an online survey of 1,100 U.S. adults. The target population was U.S. adults, but his team intentionally oversampled political partisans.

In the survey, participants were asked the extent to which they agree 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,” and “I find it difficult to stop reading or watching the news.”

Respondents were also asked about generalized feelings of stress, anxiety, fatigue, physical pain, concentration issues, and gastrointestinal issues.

The results showed that 43.8 percent of participants showed signs of either “moderately problematic” or “severely problematic” news consumption. Those individuals often became so personally invested in the news that those stories dominated their thoughts, interrupted time with family and friends, made it difficult to focus on work or school, and contributed to sleeplessness.

When asked how often participants experienced mental health or physical illness symptoms over the past month, the data show:

  • 73.6 percent of people found to have severe levels of problematic news consumption experienced mental ill-being “quite a bit” or “very much”
  • 61 percent of individuals with severe levels of problematic news consumption experienced physical illness “quite a bit” or “very much”

“While we want people to remain engaged in the news, it is important that they have a healthier relationship with the news,” McLaughlin said.

He also mentioned that treatment for addictions and compulsive behaviors center on “complete cessation” of the problematic behavior, and that with problematic news consumption people often decide to tune out completely if they believe it’s negatively impacting 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,” he says. “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.”

He also believes this latest data should prompt a wider discussion about how the news industry may be a primary driver of this phenomenon.

“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,” McLaughlin said. “However, 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.”

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