Doomscrolling COVID-19 news, even briefly, can have negative emotional effects, studies find

Doomscrolling COVID-19 news, even for just a few minutes, can have negative emotional consequences, but exposure to pandemic-related acts of kindness does not, according to a pair of new studies.

The studies, published Tuesday in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, examined how people react after brief exposure to COVID-19 news via Twitter or a YouTube reaction video.

"People often seek out information as a means of coping with challenging situations. Attuning to negative information can be adaptive because it alerts people to the risks in their environment, thereby preparing them for similar threats in the future," the authors wrote. "But is this behaviour adaptive during a pandemic when bad news is ubiquitous?"

Compared to a group that was not exposed to social media, consumption of just two to four minutes of COVID-19 news led to immediate and significant reductions in mental well-being and optimism.

"Our findings suggest the importance of being mindful of one's own news consumption, especially on social media," the authors wrote. "People seek out social media for many reasons other than news consumption and may not realize that minimal exposure to negative news on these platforms can have such negative consequences."

Exposure to acts of kindness related to the pandemic, however, did not have the same negative effects, suggesting that not all social media exposure is detrimental to well-being.

Doomscrolling -- when someone gets caught in a cycle of negative news on social media -- can amplify a person's concerns and undermine their mental well-being, according to the authors. But exposure to COVID-19 news is also necessary in order to remain up to date on fast-evolving public health measures.

Limiting one's news consumption may be too difficult because people need access to information, and the authors made several suggestions to counteract the negative consequences of doomscrolling.

"Government agencies could be mindful that the human need for information during times of stress comes with negative consequences, and they could proactively offer key information and guidelines in a brief and digestible manner," the authors wrote. "Critically brief updates may minimize psychological costs that are associated with heavy consumption and dissuade people from searching for information elsewhere."

On an individual level, social media users could attempt to deliberately balance out negative emotions by seeking positive information. In addition, social media platforms can also play a role in helping users find more positive stories, the study states.

"The algorithms that select the messages we are exposed to on social media could be modified to take valence into account and prioritize exposure for user well-being instead of endless engagement."

The authors suggest social influencers might also be able to use their platform to benefit the well-being of their followers by creating positive content for consumption.

Finally, users can also take matters into their own hands and actively engage in positive activity, including helping others and doing what's necessary to meet their own mental health needs.

More people in this country than ever before have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, including youth, among whom symptoms of anxiety and depression have doubled.

Results from the study involving Twitter included 299 participants who completed a survey. The YouTube study included 602 participants.