Bryan McLaughlin of Texas Tech University, along with colleagues, Melissa Gotlieb and Devin Mills, authored a peer-reviewed research paper titled, “Caught in a Dangerous World: Problematic News Consumption and Its Relationship to Mental and Physical Ill-Being.” In the article, they assert that “greater mental and physical ill-being” exist among people who obsessively consume news media.
The researchers cite the “seemingly constant flow of disconcerting events” that have plagued Americans in recent years: a pandemic, a contentious election, the events of January 6, mass shootings, wildfires, and more. This non-stop drama fills the airwaves and repeats dozens of times a day on news media outlets.
According to McLaughlin, Gotlieb, and Mills, one out of six Americans engages in “severely problematic news consumption.” Within this group, almost three out of four experience mental ill-being “quite a bit” or “very much” and six out of ten report experiencing physical ill-being “quite a bit” or “very much.” This latter statistic represents a ten-time increase over other study participants.
What does this mean? It means that constant consumption of news media is making us sick – quite literally. In homes where CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News plays from morning to night, people are more likely to experience anxiety, lack of focus, difficulty sleeping, and relationship problems.
Participants in the “severely problematic” group were likely to agree with statements like: “I become so absorbed in the news that I forget the world around me”; “My mind is frequently occupied with thoughts about the news”; “I find it difficult to stop reading or watching the news”; and “I often do not pay attention at school or work because I am reading or watching the news.”
People in this group also experienced feelings of fatigue, physical pain, poor concentration, and gastrointestinal issues. Of the 1,100 people surveyed, more than four out of ten were deemed to have moderate or severe levels of problematic news consumption. The good news is that many people are able to stop or significantly reduce their news consumption when they understand that it is having an adverse effect on their physical and mental health.
The researchers describe one result of severely problematic news consumption as “transportation.” The term describes a mental state in which a person is “transported” into a story. Previous literature on the subject treated the relationship between a reader and a fictional narrative. Here, however, it is into a news narrative that people are transported. Their faculties are absorbed in the story and the immediate world around them recedes.
During the last few years, I have seen people break off relationships with family and church because they had been transported into pandemic-related stories, election stories, and war stories. This has happened among both liberal and conservative media consumers.
A critic might contend that something similar occurs among consumers of the Christian gospel. They hear the story repeated over and over. They dwell on the story, are transported into it, and it becomes their story. And Christians view this “transportation” as a good thing. They encourage each other to meditate on the story and repeat it often.
There is a difference, though. Transportation into the media’s news stories, so often used as propaganda, breaks relationships, instills anxiety, and creates a sense of insecurity. Transportation into the gospel has the opposite effect: it heals relationships, instills peace, and provides security.
Whereas preoccupation with news stories tends to isolate people from one another through fear and anger, preoccupation with the story of Christ encourages people to embrace others with love and acceptance. While both tell of gross injustice, the gospel shows how injustice is overcome by sacrificial love.
Of course, one must decide which story best reflects the real world. Is it the story of chaos, corruption, and danger that is told by media outlets in various ways all day long? Or is it the story of the God who has redeemed and will make new our admittedly broken and troubled world?
The Christian gospel does not ignore the evil in our world. If anything, it sheds light on its causes, which run much deeper than politics and economics. But, unlike the so-called news stories, the Christian story offers a reason for hope.