Apologies: Too much news consumption may cause physical ill-being - study

Turns out there is such a thing as too much knowledge, so take a break after reading this.

An eldery man is seen sitting alone with coffee and a newspaper at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market amid the coronavirus pandemic, on February 2, 2021. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
An eldery man is seen sitting alone with coffee and a newspaper at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market amid the coronavirus pandemic, on February 2, 2021.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Immersing yourself too much in news consumption may make you feel ill both physically and mentally, according to a new study published on Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Health Communication.

(So take a break – after reading this, ok?)

The scientists pointed out that it has been well-established that problematic media behavior, such as internet, video game and smartphone addiction, is negatively related to health, theorizing that problematic news consumption could be just as harmful, as constant exposure to wars, disaster and tragedy, such as the war in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic, could negatively affect consumers of news.

(And yes, we realize the irony of writing about this study in the news.)

“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.”

Prof. Bryan McLaughlin

“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,” according to lead author of the study Bryan McLaughlin, associate professor of advertising at Texas Tech University's College of Media and Communication in a press release.

“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," he said. "But it doesn’t help, and the more they check the news, the more it begins to interfere with other aspects of their lives.”

 A man distributes the daily newspaper Israel Hayom at a train station in the southern city of Ashkelon, Israel November 19, 2015 (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) A man distributes the daily newspaper Israel Hayom at a train station in the southern city of Ashkelon, Israel November 19, 2015 (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

News consumption can become a sort of addiction

The scientists described "problematic news consumption" as a sort of addiction, with signs of the addiction being that a person is overly absorbed in and preoccupied with the news, as well as thinking that reading and watching the news is reducing anxiety and having difficulty stopping.

In the study, 1,100 US adults were asked about the extent to which 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.”

Respondents were also asked how often they experienced feeling stressed or anxious, as well as physical ailments such as fatigue, physical pain, poor concentration and gastrointestinal issues.

About 16.5% of respondents fell into the severely problematic category of news consumption, with adults in this category reporting significantly greater mental and physical ill-being than those in the moderately, minimally and non-problematic classes. Those in the moderately problematic category (27.3%) also reported significantly greater mental and physical ill-being than those in the lower categories.

 Illustrative image of a person texting.  (credit: PXHERE) Illustrative image of a person texting. (credit: PXHERE)

The scientists pointed out that those in the minimally problematic class did not report greater mental or physical ill-being than those in the non-problematic class, suggesting that being somewhat absorbed in the news is not problematic for mental and physical health unless the person is also "trapped" in the news with no outlet for escape.

Completely stopping news consumption is not the cure

While many people who realize that too much news consumption is unhealthy tend to decide to stop consuming news altogether, the scientists stressed that completely cutting off news consumption can also be problematic both at the individual and societal level. This could lead to them missing out on important information for their health and safety, and undermines their ability to be an informed citizen, which is important for a healthy democracy.

Luckily for news outlets, the scientists suggested that instead of cutting off news consumption completely as might be done with other types of addictions, interventions should instead focus more on developing a healthier relationship with the news.

The scientists additionally pointed out that while journalists have long been thought to have a responsibility to citizens, economic pressures, technological advances and the 24-hour news cycle have pushed many journalists to focus on selecting "newsworthy" stories that will grab attention even if they're not the most important for keeping citizens informed.

The study stresses that further research is needed in order to fully understand the relationship between ill-health and news consumption, as well as the implications of any such relationship.

"Much is left to learn about problematic news consumption, its individual and societal consequences, and what might be done to help mitigate these consequences," concluded the study. "Nevertheless, this study provides an important foundation and helps raise attention to a new way of considering and examining effects of the news.

"There is an urgent need for the continued documentation of experiences of those with higher levels of problematic news consumption through both quantitative and qualitative methods."