Since early 2020, when the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic, stories about COVID-19 have dominated the news and social media. Much of the coverage has been negative – from government regulations and lifestyle restrictions, through protests and rule breaking, to food and equipment shortages and new variants emerging.
A number of scientific studies have found that over the same period levels of anxiety and depression have increased, with those spending more time consulting COVID-related news each day, also reporting higher levels of anxiety.
Psychologists from Essex and Canada, set out to discover whether it was COVID news that was causing poorer mental health and if so, how much exposure to the news, was damaging.
As Dr Kathryn Buchanan, who led the study, explained: “We wanted to find out whether it was exposure to information about COVID that was harmful to one’s well-being, or whether it was in fact that people who were already feeling unhappy and anxious were more likely to seek out more bad news about the pandemic. We also wanted to test how quickly the negative impact was felt.”
In two studies, people were randomly assigned to spend a few minutes consuming COVID-related information, either by reading a real-time Twitter feed or watching a You Tube video of someone commenting on bad COVID news. In both studies participants reported lower well-being compared to a control group, who had not been exposed to any COVID news.
They found as little as two minutes of bad news about COVID-19 was enough to have a powerful effect on people’s emotions, but positive COVID stories, about random acts of kindness, did not have the same negative consequences, suggesting that it is not simply time spent on social media that is problematic, but rather that consumption of bad news is the concern.
“If even a mere few minutes of exposure to bad COVID-related news can result in immediate reductions to well-being, then extended and repeated exposure may over time add up to significant mental health consequences. Our findings suggest the importance of being mindful of one’s own news consumption, especially on social media.
“In some countries, news consumption via social media is on the rise, even though people acknowledge that news on these platforms has lower quality, accuracy, trustworthiness and impartiality. Half of adults in the UK now use social media to keep up with the news, including 16% who use Twitter, and 35% who use Facebook.
People seek out social media for many reasons, other than news consumption, and may not realise that minimal exposure to bad news on these platforms can have such negative consequences.
“One strategy that individuals could employ would be to attempt to undo the negative by balancing it out with positive information. Such an approach would be consistent with recent calls for traditional news media to report one positive story for every three negative stories,” said Dr Buchanan.
The study, carried out with Lara Aknin from Simon Fraser University in Canada, has been published in PLOS ONE.