Sorry to say it, but that title is total “fake news”! It was made up to get your attention, and if you’re reading this, it worked. There is constant news coverage of everything, no matter how big or small. On top of the traditional TV and print news outlets, people are exposed to news via social media on their phone with a touch of their finger or a glance at  a banner-alert. Consuming news in such high quantities, especially during the COVID-19 era, is sure to have lasting effects. How has media consumption changed and how concerned do we need to be about our addiction to being constantly informed? 

Consumption of Media During COVID-19

Consumption of news through the internet has dramatically increased since the creation of social media in the early 2000s. Even during pre-COVID times, many people receive their news through social media, as noted by the Pew Research Center. How has the era of COVID-19 affected these trends? A survey of 1,310 Italians revealed that social media consumption was altered during the COVID-19 lockdown in March of 2020. People reported using digital media more before bed, while also going to bed and waking up later. Even though people had more freedom to control their schedules without the typical pressures of commuting to work, they reported decreased sleep quality.  A researcher in Spain collected surveys from the Pew Research Center re-evaluated them in order to uncover other fascinating trends during COVID-19. The researcher, Andreu Casero-Ripolles, reported increased news consumption during the COVID-19 outbreak. He saw several trends: a 32% increase in “news engagement” and attention to the news, 47% of 18-29 year olds surveyed reported increased news consumption during COVID times, and while all platforms saw increases in activity during COVID there was a surprisingly large increase in more traditional (TV and print) news in recent months. Even with all of this increased consumption, the study found that there was only a 4% increase in trust of the media being consumed. This makes sense in the context of the “fake news” era and finger-pointing that is common among the newer forms of media and news. One of the unexpected benefits of the coronavirus outbreak was an increase in people’s ability to spot fake news (Casero-Ripolles noted a 12% increase in fake news detection compared to before the coronavirus outbreak across all platforms and a 25% increase for social media specifically). 

What’s the problem?!

Can people be addicted to the media and news they consume? Of course! It is possible to become addicted to anything that activates your brain’s reward circuitry. Reward circuitry refers to the brain regions that release dopamine, and other neurotransmitters, and reinforce behaviors that make you feel good. For example, if you eat chocolate or drink alcohol, your brain engages this reward circuit, which makes us feel happy. Then, your brain begins to associate eating chocolate with feeling good or happy. This connection can be strengthened over time with repeated exposure. Addiction is a malfunction of this system. When someone’s brain places too much value on a substance, behavior, or anything that activates these reward systems, it can become almost impossible to ignore the desire to repeat that exposure. This phenomenon is referred to as “chronic relapsing”. It is crucial to addiction because it differentiates those who enjoy something and those who are addicted. In addiction, people cannot control their intake and will engage in the behavior to escape the feelings of distress in the absence of the behavior. For example, many people report sleeping worse during COVID-19 due to increased stress, but they continue to watch and read news on the state of the world. While we still have a long way to go to fully understand addiction, it is clear that it involves this reward reinforcement. With any addiction, it is important to consider the impact on other behaviors and daily life. 

Implications of Media Addiction

One of the biggest effects of this social media addiction is the toll it takes on coping strategies and mental health. With the increase of using social media as a news source, there are several imminent concerns regarding mental health. Kanokporn Sriwilai’s study, linked above, noted that those with addictions to social media had lower mindfulness skills. Mindfulness, the practice of being consciously aware and mentally present, has been well established as a method of decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Also, excess social media use was correlated with emotion-focused coping methods, which is simply focusing on alleviating the emotions associated with an issue but not fixing the issue itself. While there are many negative effects of increased social media and news consumption, not everyone is at a high risk of these issues. There could be several key personality risk factors for developing addiction to media. A recent study suggested that both extrovertism and neuroticism have a higher potential for addiction to social media. 

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased media usage and news consumption, which has led to an increase in anxiety and a decrease in coping strategies and mental health. These issues may have taken much longer to observe if it weren’t for the pandemic, a very unique scenario that requires people to be informed and sort out the facts from the fake. While it’s important to stay informed, we should also take this chance to practice mindfulness, exercise, and other healthy outlets for the anxiety and depression that often accompanies trying times. 

Peer edited by Colleen Lawrimore

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