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No Newsfeed, No Cry

In the early days of the pandemic, higher media consumption led to more emotional distress.

Illustration of hand holding phone receiving notifications

Both television and social media had the strongest positive relationships with emotional suffering. Danielle Lawry

Anxiety and fear went hand in hand for Americans trying to learn more about COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic — and the most distressed people were turning on the television and scrolling through social media, according to UW–Madison research.

“Higher media consumption — seeking out the news — was associated with more emotional distress,” according to UW psychology professor Markus Brauer.

Brauer and collaborators in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication surveyed more than 2,200 people throughout the United States in March and April of 2020.

They asked respondents if they felt “overwhelmed,” “anxious,” or “afraid about what might happen,” as well as how often they were seeking out pandemic information via different types of news media.

Younger respondents and women were more likely to be emotionally distressed, as were people with liberal political views and, naturally, people who felt they were likely to catch the virus. But the findings held even when controlling for age and gender.

“We sort of expected that with social media consumers,” says Brauer, who partnered with journalism professor Dhavan Shah ’89 on the study. “Negative news gets more clicks and is shared more often, so people who get their news from social media are disproportionately exposed to distressing content.”

However, the negative impact wasn’t limited to consumers of social media.

“What really surprised us was the association between emotional distress on the one hand and frequency of getting news from print media and television on the other hand,” says Brauer.

Both television and social media had the strongest positive relationships with emotional suffering. The association was smaller for print media consumption, but still significant.

The study doesn’t allow for causal conclusions. While it is likely that seeking out news updates about the pandemic led to emotional distress, according to Brauer, it is also possible that people who are distressed try to manage their emotions by checking the news more often.

“So many of us are connected what feels like constantly throughout the day, and there’s certainly a point where continued attention isn’t a benefit,” Brauer says. “Would nine hours a day checking the news for COVID information make you more informed than five hours a day? Probably not. Our results tell us you’re just more likely to feel worse.”

Published in the Winter 2022 issue

Tags: anxiety, COVID-19 pandemic, media, Psychology, social media

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