Media overload is hurting our mental health. Here are ways to manage headline stress

The adults from the 2021 Hwang study, who also rated the frequency of their news consumption, reported on how often they had felt “anxious,” “overwhelmed,” or “afraid about what might happen” since they became aware of Covid-19. Overall, all types of news media consumption increased emotional distress, but television and social media exposure were more strongly associated, the researchers found. Younger adults and women were more vulnerable. People with conservative ideology were less likely to be distressed.

Broadly speaking, uncertainty is “a difficult psychological state for us,” said Markus Brauer, PhD, one of the study’s authors and a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Thus, seeking out information should “lead to a more positive psychological state,” he said. But when people feel like there is little they can do, such as when Covid-19 infection-prevention guidance kept shifting in the early months of the pandemic, they can develop a feeling of learned helplessness, Brauer said.

The research shows correlation; the study was not designed to assess cause and effect, Brauer said. “It’s also possible that those who are emotionally distressed turn to the news to try to alleviate their emotional distress,” he said. “My guess is that [the relationship] actually works both ways,” he said.

By June 2020, 83% of Americans reported stress over the nation’s future, as they attempted to process dispiriting and converging news events, including economic turmoil, racial injustice, and the pandemic, according to APA’s Stress in America survey. That feeling of strain continued to be reflected in the March 2022 survey; 73% of Americans reported being overwhelmed by the number of crises facing the world at that point. Yet another survey snapshot, this one conducted in October 2021, found that a third of adults reported that pandemic-related strains were affecting their ability to make basic decisions, including about what to wear or eat.

Prior to the pandemic, most studies looked at the psychological effects of news turned their lens on acute time-limited trauma such as the September 11 terrorist attack or the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Price said. But the ongoing exposure to pandemic news is different, he said, and still not understood in terms of its mental health impact.

“We call it posttraumatic stress disorder because we assume it’s posttraumatic,” Price said. “What do we do when the trauma is still happening?”

The term “doomscrolling” emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic to capture the negative impact of viewing too much pandemic-related media, Price said. “It’s the transient feeling that one has when they are scrolling through these articles—they have a real spike in negative affect,” he said.

Price’s study found that the link between daily exposure to pandemic news through social media and reports of more depression and PTSD symptoms was stronger among those adults with a history of mistreatment in childhood. As one possible explanation, Price and his colleagues cited a prior study that posited that individuals might overuse social media in an attempt to ease their emotional distress (Psychiatry Research, Vol. 267, 2018).

But an emotional correlation wasn’t identified among adults who relied more on traditional media sources, such as newspapers or television, for news, Price said. He said that the highest effect with social media sites might be embedded in the way they use news to reel in and retain their users.

“They’re designed to be limitless scrolling,” he said. “When there’s a big [news-related] topic of conversation that’s negative, it can dominate what you’re seeing. It can give the impression that this is the only thing that’s happening.”

Meanwhile, the changes in infection-control guidance and other uncertainties starting from the early days of the pandemic likely further solidified people’s information-seeking habits moving forward, said Chrysalis Wright, PhD, an associate lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who specializes in media psychology.

Covid drew our attention to the news media probably more so than before, because it was a worldwide health crisis,” she said. “It seemed like every hour there was a new headline.”