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The psychological trauma of reading the news

Is compulsively doom-scrolling and checking the news the cause of our anxiety or a symptom of it?

By Sophie McBain

In recent months, several friends have told me that they are struggling to read or watch the news. They feel a moral duty to stay informed but they have to limit themselves to short chunks of news because it is all too depressing, too overwhelming. Others report compulsive doom-scrolling; they can’t tear themselves away from the horror. The same sentiments crop up all the time on social media.

Maybe the problem isn’t only that we have spent the past few years lurching from one crisis to another but that, for the average person in the UK, rarely have so many crises struck this close to home: the pandemic, the cost-of-living squeeze, war in Europe, climate change and other more mysterious sources of anxiety – the outbreaks of monkeypox and childhood hepatitis.

These harrowing news stories might affect us more deeply than most people realise. One study explored the psychological impact of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, looking at how people’s stress responses in the weeks that followed were shaped by their level of exposure to the attack and by the amount of news coverage of it that they consumed. It found that spending more than six hours a day following the news in the aftermath of the attack was associated with a nine-fold increase in acute stress symptoms. In fact, the obsessive news-watchers were more likely to experience these symptoms than those who were directly affected by the attack. This might be because those most affected by the bombing were offered psychological support, but it could also be – the authors suggested – because constantly revisiting a traumatic event encourages rumination, conditions new fears and disrupts the usual recovery process.

Other studies in the US have shown a similar link between symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder and the amount of time people spent checking the news or social media in the aftermath of disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. (In turn, acute stress in the two weeks following the 9/11 attacks was associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular ailments in the next three years, suggesting one way that bad news can kill, even at a remove.)

But is compulsively checking the news the cause of our anxiety or a symptom of it? There’s some evidence to suggest the latter. The more anxious people are about something, the more inclined they are to seek out information about it, which sets off a vicious cycle because the more news they read, the more anxious they become. This pattern has been studied in Florida among people bracing themselves for Hurricane Irma in 2017. Those who spent more time reading or watching the news beforehand were more likely to believe that they would suffer post-traumatic stress as a result of the storm, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Similarly, at the beginning of the pandemic, research in Germany proved what every doom-scroller understands instinctively: the more frequently you check the news, the more time you spend reading and the more sources you consult, the more likely you are to feel depressed and anxious. Negative news can also cause us to catastrophise our personal worries.

[See also: What is consciousness?]

Like many people, I spent the days following the 24 May Texas school shooting compulsively reading about it. This wasn’t an attempt to assuage anxiety, or if it was, it was on a deep, subconscious level: did I want to understand how a parent can survive their worst nightmare? Mostly though, when I read about the young victims, or the police response, I felt a need to bear witness, felt that I owed those directly impacted my care and attention. Sometimes we feel morally obligated to doom-scroll – but why, exactly? Were I American, I could argue that I needed to inform myself to exert pressure for change: a change in gun laws, and also an inquiry into the police response. But I’m not; my views are politically irrelevant.

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At its best, bad news makes us want to do good. Consider the recent flood of donations to Deborah James’s bowel cancer charity, or the more than 100,000 Britons who in March signed up to host Ukrainian refugees, or the solidarity that prevailed in the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic. Better-informed citizens also demand more from their elected representatives: research shows that in parts of the US with less local media coverage, congressmen and women work less hard for their constituents and public spending is lower.

But the moral reactions that are fuelled by bad news and reinforced online aren’t always helpful. Moral outrage can serve as an impetus for positive change or it can keep diverting collective action to the latest buzz story, hampering efforts to make meaningful progress. In one paper published by two Yale psychologists, William Brady and Molly Crocket, the authors note as an example: “As of this writing, 245 migrant children remain separated from their parents while considerable public outrage is directed toward President Trump for calling alleged former lover Stormy Daniels ‘Horseface’ in a tweet.”

Some research suggests that the psychological tendency to focus on negative news tends to bolster support for right-wing politics. One study on immigration sentiment in the UK, Germany and Sweden found that when the media framed immigration stories negatively, this led to a decrease in support for welfare spending (especially if people had pre-existing negative attitudes towards welfare and spending). Hardly surprising, you might think. More noteworthy is that when immigration stories were framed positively, this has little impact on public attitudes. Other research has suggested that the frequency of news coverage of immigration stories drives anti-immigration sentiment. In the UK, one study found that media coverage of Ukip drove public support for the party – rather than, as you might imagine, vice versa.

A lot depends, of course, on the kinds of news channels you consult. In the US cable channel numbers vary randomly by county, but the number each news channel is assigned greatly affects their viewership: the lower the number, the more people watch. If a scrolling viewer reaches Fox News before they reach CNN, they are more likely to watch Fox. This means that researchers can study how Fox affects people’s political opinions and behaviour independently of their pre-existing political outlook. And they’ve found that in counties with more Fox News viewers, elected judges are more punitive, and that, during the coronavirus pandemic, citizens in counties with higher Fox News viewership were less likely to practice social distancing or use protective measures such as masks or hand sanitiser. Which is the other way that bad news kills.

For journalists, this all provides humbling evidence of the extensive, and sometimes unpredictable, impact of our stories – it’s a reason to work harder, and to think more deeply about which stories we cover, and how they will be received. For readers it’s proof – if you need it – that it really is OK, psychologically and morally, if you just need to switch off.

[See also: Into the Grey Zone: can one really be conscious while in a coma?]

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