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  • Writer's picturePhilip Lewis, MA, AMFT

Is News Addiction (Literally) Killing You?

Updated: Feb 14

By Philip Lewis, MA, AMFT


Read below how the endless barrage of disturbing images, videos, and news stories hurled at you daily by social media, and other Internet sites may be damaging to your physical health, not just your mental well-being!


Five Simple Strategies to Protect Yourself From News or Social Media Addiction!


The human brain is designed to optimize mental efficiency by turning simple, repetitive tasks (e.g., driving, talking) into mindless habits, notes Dr. Jud Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist specializing in anxiety and habit change. This saves the bulk of mental activity for important functions, like parenting, studying for exams, or eating ice cream (ok, maybe not the ice cream).


Nonetheless, the brain’s nifty optimization feature can malfunction, especially when we feel threatened. Dr. Brewer notes fear is usually protective – it alerts us to avoid a head-on collision, flee a burning building … stay clear of the boss Fridays at 4:55pm. But when a fear develops as a result of a person’s initial emotional or irrational misinterpretation of the actual level of threat involved in a particular situation, that fear can rapidly grow into an anxiety-producing habit.


This maladaptive habituation can occur with "problematic news consumption," a term coined by Dr. Bryan McLaughlin, Associate Professor at Texas Tech University, College of Media & Communication. When we first learn about a shocking news event, intense emotion can bring us to misinterpret the news as personally threatening when it actually is not. According to McLaughlin, this can spark a “subjective bias” that clouds our perception in the future, influencing us to interpret similar news events as threatening whether they are or not.

woman in library frightened while reading newspaper
Is this really happening?

Once subjective bias takes hold, subsequent exposure to alarming news stories can drag you into an emotional downward spiral that’s difficult to escape. In a rushed bid for relief, many reflexively seek out additional information about the same disturbing news story. But this strategy frequently just makes things worse, since you have already been primed to interpret such related news as scary. This ends up simply reinforcing the original fear and intensifying the anxiety (e.g., you may unconsciously find yourself reading only headlines and articles that confirm your worst fears).1


Moreover, since “fear is contagious” as Brewer asserts, if you see other people overreacting in the same way (e.g., on social media), the “thinking” part of your brain might go offline, thus letting the anxiety explode into full-blown panic. A 2022 study by McLaughlin, et al. found this cycle of “excessive consumption of news” could not only impact your sense of mental well-being, but also cause physical problems like headaches, gastrointestinal distress, and back pain.


Fortunately, research suggests there are several ways to protect yourself while still keeping informed about important personal, local, national, and world events!


Five Strategies for Staying Healthy While Informed2
  1. Establish consumption boundaries. Set specific times when you allow yourself to look at news or social media. Resist the inevitable urge to constantly check for updates in between. Setting healthy boundaries helps you control your time and mental outlook, to help minimize stress and anxiety levels.

  2. Separate Fact from Fiction.Get news from reliable and credible sources. Inaccurate or biased reporting can cloud your judgment.

  3. Develop a Balanced Perspective. Broaden your news sources to include information about other points of view. Even if it doesn’t change your mind, considering other opinions can help you develop a comprehensive – and likely more accurate – understanding of important societal issues.

  4. Establish Tech-Free Zones. Designate specific places at work and home where electronic devices are strictly off-limits (e.g., bathroom, bedroom). Reducing electronic interruptions increases the frequency of peaceful, soothing moments in your day.

  5. Spend More Time on Yourself. Be mindful of how news consumption affects your mental and physical well-being. Engage with news sparingly. Take breaks. Do activities that nourish your mind and body (i.e., exercise, meditate, see friends). Prioritizing self-care helps maintain a healthy mindset and prevent information burnout.

happy kissing couple outdoors enjoying time away from electronic distractions
Happy Couple kissing


© Philip Lewis



1(Brewer, 2020, Aug. 18; McLaughlin, 2022; Vedantam, 2023)

2(Brewer, 2020, Aug. 18, 2020, Aug. 19; McLaughlin, 2022; Vedantam, 2023)

 

References


Brewer, J. H. (2020, Aug. 18). How to avoid a news-driven fear and anxiety spiral [Audio podcast episode] In The Dr. Jud podcast.


Brewer, J. H. (2020, Aug. 19). The Dr. Jud Podcast In Understanding Coronavirus Anxiety.


McLaughlin, B., Gotlieb, M.R., Mills, D. (2022). Caught in a dangerous world: Problematic news consumption and its relationship to mental and physical ill-being. Health Communication.


Vedantam, S. H. (2023). Less is more (interview with Bryan McLaughlin) In Hidden brain [Audio podcast].


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