There’s no shortage of bad news in the media to “doomscroll”, from a global pandemic to the war in Ukraine and an impending climate crisis, but new research suggests the compulsive urge to surf the web can lead to poor mental and physical health outcomes.
Doomscrolling is the tendency to “continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening or depressing”, a practice researchers found has boomed since the onset of the pandemic.
The study, published in the journal Health Communication, found 16.5% of about 1,100 people surveyed showed signs of “severely problematic” news consumption, leading to greater levels of stress, anxiety and poor health.
Associate Prof Bryan McLaughlin, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Texas Tech University, said the 24-hour-news cycle could bring about a “constant state of high alert” in some people, making the world seem like a “dark and dangerous places”.
“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.”
About 27.3% of those surveyed reported “moderately problematic” levels of news consumption, 27.5% were minimally impacted and 28.7% experienced no problems.
While some readers can comfortably receive news updates without any tangible psychological effects, others demonstrate a more compulsive obsession with the media, and struggle to detach themselves from the bad news they’re reading.
These respondents scored high on five problematic news consumption dimensions listed by the researchers: becoming absorbed in news content, being preoccupied with thoughts about the news, attempting to reduce anxiety by consuming more news, finding it difficult to avoid the news and having news consumption interfere in their daily lives.
And those with higher levels of problematic news consumption were “significantly more likely” to experience poor mental and physical health, the survey found, even when controlling for demographics, personality traits, and overall news use.
Of those with severely problematic consumption levels, 74% reported experiencing mental health problems and 61% reported physical problems compared to 8% and 6.1% of all other study participants.
“We did anticipate that a sizeable portion of our sample would show signs of problematic news consumption. However, we were surprised to find that 17% of study participants suffer from the most severe level,” McLaughlin said.
“This is certainly concerning and suggests the problem may be more widespread than we expected. A lot of people appear to be experiencing significant amounts of anxiety and stress due to their news consumption habits.”
Dr Kate Mannell, a media studies researcher at Deakin University in the Australian state of Victoria, said Covid-19 made the public “more inclined” to engage in doomscrolling because of the amount of bad news, coupled with extra spare time.
Mannell studied the impact of news consumption on Victorians affected by strict Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020. She found partial news avoidance was beneficial for the wellbeing of surveyed participants, who reported being less distracted and calmer at home.
“People weren’t avoiding it completely, but were taking conscious steps to limit their news consumption after realising [it] had become unhealthy,” she said.
“They found strategic ways of staying informed … doing one longer form piece of news engagement or going directly to public health.”
Mannell said for news addicts the key was acknowledging when it became detrimental to health, rather than encouraging people to switch off media entirely.
“We’re in an unstable world,” she said.
“We’re going to have increasing climate catastrophes – crisis contexts in place around Covid are going to become more prevalent.
“Becoming stressed and anxious is a legitimate natural reaction to the world around you, but it’s important … people are able to gauge when [news consumption] becomes problematic.”