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  • Jonathan Pittam

Is excessive Covid-19 news exposure affecting our mental wellbeing?

Three American professors of Sociology decided to pick up the gauntlet and try to answer that very question: ‘Does Covid-19 news exposure affect mental health?’.1 They surveyed 10,606 Americans of all ages, genders and ethnicities, and published their results in Socius, one of the American Sociological Association’s journals.

More news = more blues

They found an association between Covid-19 news exposure and individuals feeling distressed. Interestingly they went a step further than just trying to see if there’s a link between exposure to Covid-19 news reports and distress scores, and also looked at whether there’s an additional factor alongside consuming news and feeling distressed. They found that ‘increased perception of how much of a threat Covid-19 poses’ plays a big part in how distressed we feel. And they found that the more news you consume; the more of a threat you’ll perceive it to be; and the more distressed you’re likely to feel. A bit of a love triangle, just without the love.2

The researchers explained that 67.62% of the distress effect (scored via a distress index) people were experiencing was down to how much of a threat they perceived Covid-19 to be, and that was correlated with how much news they were exposed to.

There appear to be strong findings in the other direction too, being that those who were exposed to the least Covid-19 news perceived it to be less of a threat, and also scored the lowest on the distress index.

When is enough too much?

As with many studies, we have to be careful not to mix up correlation with causation. This study definitely does not ‘prove’ Covid-19 news exposure causes increased mental distress, as its not that type of study, it just shows a strong association between those factors. It also doesn’t definitively say whether or not the association goes in other directions; such as people who are already feeling distressed might watch more news to make them feel less uncertain, and this might increase the perceived threat further.

A study was also done in Iran, looking into the anxiety levels of the public during the Covid-19 pandemic, and was published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry in June 2020. Researchers surveyed 754 Iranian citizens from various cities and commented that “the more people follow Covid-19 news, the more anxious they are”.3

Fresh news angles

So, what can we do with this information? Clearly there’s going to be a lot more research done in this direction, alongside the work being done to look at the general psychological impact of the pandemic. Work might be done to answer questions around some of the other variables, such as ‘what is the threshold for daily news exposure before it might become distressing; once, twice, five times?’. Or, ‘is it less distressing to consume Covid-19 news via the radio, rather than a newspaper’ or social media? Knowing these answers would be very helpful.

Over the past year I’ve listened to LBC radio via an app on my phone. And great as LBC is, the news is reported twice every hour 24/7. I didn’t think it was having much of an effect on me, but when I recently decided to delete the app (more time to play Angry Birds. Just kidding) I definitely noticed a difference in how I felt over the following weeks. I guess I just wasn’t having as much negativity pumped into my ears. Looking back, I’d definitely become a bit more agitated, generally. But again this could have just been correlation, not necessarily causation due to news exposure.

Dr W.H.O

Interestingly, when you pop onto the World Health Organisations website, and look at their Covid-19 ‘Looking after our mental health’ page, one of their recommendations is to “Minimise newsfeeds – Try to reduce how much you watch, read, listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed”. It goes on to say “Seek the latest information at specific times of the day, once or twice a day if needed”.4 Maybe they’re onto something re picking up the news ‘as needed’. But ‘as needed’ is very subjective, and if you ask my mum, she’d say consuming every single news report in the history of Covid-19, is ‘as needed’ by her.

Keep it ripe & drop the hype

A 2020 research paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health (what a mouthful, they definitely need an acronym) looked into the psychological impact of the early Covid-19 outbreak, surveying 1120 respondents across 194 Chinese cities. One of their conclusions was that; “The content of health information provided during the epidemic needs to be based on evidence to avoid adverse psychological reactions”. It went on to say that “Additional information on vaccines, routes of transmission, and updates on the number of infected cases, and location were associated with lower levels of anxiety”. 5 This makes me think that maybe when news is delivered objectively and hype-free it might have a better effect, and also with any positive aspects added in, such as recoveries, rather than a 100% focus on the negatives.

To limit or not to limit?

So maybe rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, and watching no news, perhaps we can become more selective, and set limits on our news. Limits either in the form of the amount of time each day we spend exposed to Covid-19 news, or limits on the number of news bulletins we consume each day? Food for thought perhaps.

Does all news have to be bad news?

Maybe if we all consume a little less, media outlets might decide to up their game and begin reporting on some slightly different but linked COVID-19 angles, such as recoveries, new slants on home-schooling, innovations around home-based productivity, novel ways to stay connected when you live alone, and so on… I’m just thinking aloud here, but I’m sure you see where I’m going.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with a final quote from the three American professors from the initial study I mentioned; to give you a dose of motivation to assess your current Covid-19 news consumption level; “Our findings show that people who are exposed to more Covid-19 news tend to have greater psychological distress”. 2 So on that note, have a think about your consumption, and how introducing limits could benefit you...

By Jonathan Pittam Mental Health Educator

Reference list

1 Media Consumption in the Age of COVID-19 (jpmorgan.com)

2 COVID-19 and the 24/7 News Cycle: Does COVID-19 News Exposure Affect Mental Health? - Kevin Stainback, Brittany N. Hearne, Monica M. Trieu, 2020 (sagepub.com)

3 Assessing the anxiety level of Iranian general population during COVID-19 outbreak (nih.gov)

4 #HealthyAtHome - Mental health (who.int)

5 IJERPH | Free Full-Text | Immediate Psychological Responses and Associated Factors during the Initial Stage of the 2019 Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Epidemic among the General Population in China | HTML (mdpi.com)

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