As the COVID-19 pandemic upends American life, news coverage has become a central component of protecting public health. From daily briefings by state and federal officials to practical guidance from medical experts, crucial information is flowing across the internet and airwaves.
But if continuous coverage is helpful in some respects, it poses real risks as well. According to mental health professionals, consuming too much alarming news can cause unproductive stress and fear. The CDC has cautioned against staying glued to our screens, encouraging Americans to take breaks from coronavirus coverage.
How are people of all ages consuming news about COVID-19, and how is their mental health affected as a result? We set out to study these compelling questions, surveying more than 1,000 individuals about their media diets. Our findings reveal conflicted feelings about media consumption as people struggle to stay calm and informed simultaneously. To see how Americans are receiving and processing news in this unprecedented crisis, keep reading.
On average, our respondents reported spending 53 minutes a day consuming news coverage during the COVID-19 outbreak. This figure resonates with data from news outlets, which attribute a striking jump in page views to the coronavirus. As the pandemic has thoroughly overshadowed both significant global news stories and domestic political matters, it’s safe to assume that the majority of this consumption was directly attributed to the coronavirus.
Indeed, respondents reported consuming 22 more minutes of news each day, on average, compared to their typical habits before COVID-19. Among women, this increase was especially significant, with female respondents consuming nearly 26 additional minutes of news, on average.
This additional consumption could reflect a grim reality: With millions laid off or furloughed as a result of the crisis, many Americans have more time on their hands. Moreover, the millions of people working from home may have more freedom to peek at news coverage, away from the watchful eyes of their bosses.
Interestingly, millennials reported the biggest increase in news consumption time, whereas baby boomers had the smallest bump. Although medical experts warn that older people are most vulnerable to the virus’s effects, many fear that baby boomers are not taking the pandemic seriously enough. On the other hand, perhaps some baby boomers are making a prudent decision: An excess of threatening news could be painful and counterproductive.
Media and Mental Health
In this time of constant, alarming coverage, are there clear correlations between patterns of news consumption and mental health outcomes? Our findings certainly suggest so.
Individuals reporting their mental health had declined since the start of 2020 watched an average of 73 minutes of news or online content each day. While this figure represents just a fraction of the typical American’s visual media consumption, it’s still strikingly high.
On the other hand, those who felt their mental health had improved since the start of 2020 watched only about an hour of news each day. Does this statistic reflect the intentional effort in keeping with recommendations from public health experts? Among our respondents, 43% had set time limits on how much news they would consume. Moreover, those who set such limits were far more likely to report improved mental health since the start of 2020.
However, a different pattern emerged with regard to written coverage: Individuals who said their mental health had improved in 2020 actually spent more time reading news, on average. This counterintuitive result has interesting implications. Could TV and video be particularly detrimental to mental health, whereas written news is less likely to cause distress? Indeed, many networks are wrestling with the tone of their coverage, attempting to convey the severity of the outbreak without sensationalizing it.
Platforms of the Pandemic
Which social media platforms are the most popular conveyors of COVID-19 coverage? While Facebook and Twitter lead the pack, other sites are exerting a powerful influence.
More than a third of respondents said Facebook was their primary social media platform for finding coronavirus coverage; no other platform came close. The pandemic has presented real challenges for the company, such as handling a surge in use and combating the spread of misinformation on its platform.
Twitter, the second-most popular platform, has also been forced to address problems created by COVID-19. The company recently announced plans to remove tweets that might exacerbate the spread of the virus or conflict with public health recommendations. YouTube has struggled to scrub misinformation from its platform, as well, with false and fear-mongering videos still reaching viewers regularly.
But one platform seemed singularly associated with problematic content: Those who identified Reddit as their primary platform for finding news coverage were the most likely to say their mental health had gotten worse. The platform has long been fertile ground for conspiracy theories, and its leadership has resisted the active moderation measures adopted by competitors. Across a diffuse array of subreddits, troubling and misleading posts continue to proliferate, despite the best efforts of some well-intentioned moderators.
Cautious News Consumption
Our results suggest that excessive news consumption may prove problematic, adding further difficulty to an exceedingly challenging time. Yet, avoiding news completely seems both impossible and imprudent, and many of our respondents are successfully managing their media diets. If our findings are any indication, you can do the same.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the relentless news cycle is unlikely to slow. Accordingly, you may need to approach your media consumption conscientiously, resisting the urge to view news whenever it’s available. Technology should empower us to make choices about receiving information, not overwhelm us with unnecessary worry.
If you’re ready to take a more intentional approach to your media diet, Flixed has your back. We help users select streaming services so that they can leave cable behind and keep all their favorite channels. With our tools, you can cut the cord without compromising on content.
Methodology and Limitations
We used Amazon Mechanical Turk to survey 1,009 people about their news consumption habits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Respondents were required to complete the entire survey and pass an attention-check question in the middle of the survey. Participants who failed to do either of these were excluded from the study.
Fifty-six percent of respondents were millennials (born 1981 to 1997); 29% were from Generation X (born 1965 to 1980); 12% were baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964); 2% were from Generation Z (born 1998 to 2017); 1% were from the silent generation (born 1928 to 1945); and less than 1% were from the greatest generation (born 1927 or earlier). The average age of respondents was 38 with a standard deviation of 12 years. Of all respondents, 56% were men, 44% were women, and less than 1% identified with a nonbinary gender.
The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting; however, there can be many issues with self-reported data. These issues may include selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration. In finding averages of quantitative values, we removed outliers so that the data were not exaggerated. Where appropriate, the data were normalized to ensure an equal demographic sample, e.g., when exploring the relationship between mental health fluctuations and social media platform preferences for news consumption.
Fair Use Statement
Please share this project as widely as possible: We hope our findings empower others to consciously consider their media diets during this challenging time. If you do share our work, however, please do so only for noncommercial purposes. Additionally, we kindly ask that you include a link back to this page to properly attribute our team.