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Anxiety

Newsfeed Anxiety

How social media news can trap people in a cycle of fear and loathing.

Key points

  • Surveys show that social media is now the most used medium for obtaining news by younger people.
  • Research also shows that many people do not like social media news and may try to avoid it.
  • The avoidance strategy that some people may develop can end up driving them back to look for the very thing that they want to avoid.

Recent surveys have suggested that most younger people get the majority of their news from social media, rather than from television or print. Behind those headlines are some rather more interesting statistics, indicating that people increasingly say they do not like social media news and try to avoid it. Yet, despite this fear and loathing, usage of digital news outlets keeps growing. The psychology of phobias and fear suggests one plausible solution to what looks like contradictory statistics. Considerations of the ways in which our fear responses work, and the ways in which social media newsfeeds work, suggest a perfect environment for the development and maintenance of anxiety.

The surveys1,2 show that social media is now the most used medium for obtaining news by younger people, that the use of other news sources is declining, and that these trends have been apparent for several years. However, behind these figures, the surveys show that people do not like social media news (even though they do use it), and that many try to avoid online news. There are some other interesting figures about trust, which also play into this story, but the key findings to keep in mind are that people both use, and try to avoid, social media news. There are many possibilities underlying these apparently puzzling findings. One possibility involves the nature of fear and anxiety, and has interesting psychological consequences that seem to make social media use more and more likely.

Some other possibilities deserve brief mention, just so we keep them in mind. Firstly, it may be that accessing online news is growing because people, especially the young, do not trust traditional news sources. They do not trust politicians (they may have a point), and they trust social media influencers more (you can push a point too far!). This may suggest that, for younger people, social media sources are seen as the best of a bad lot. Secondly, people may lie, and may not actually be accessing social media news more than TV news—it is always difficult to know the validity of self-reported data. Finally, the surveys may be methodologically flawed. However, let us assume that these possibilities are not the key ones, and turn to the psychological issues of anxiety, fear, and loathing.

When somebody becomes phobic—of spiders, dogs, snakes, clowns, or even shoes—a number of things happen to them. They experience heightened senses of fear and arousal in the presence of that creature or object, and the fight-or-flight response is triggered. They feel a sense of cognitive discomfort in the presence of the creature or object, often linked to embarrassment about what others will think of their fear. They often try to escape the situation as quickly as they can, or they put in place avoidance strategies allowing them not to contact the phobia subject in the first place. All of this establishes a state of heightened vigilance, or hypervigilance, concerning the situation about which the person is scared. The phobic looks out for the object, so that they can get out quickly before the fear takes over. Have you ever noticed how a spider-phobic spots a spider in a room in a microsecond, while others carry on blithely unaware?

Now think about all of this in connection to the use of social media news, and we can construct an explanation for the two discrepant findings: 1) that people look at social media news more; but 2) they hate it more. We easily can see how a fear of news could develop. The world news is catastrophically bad (wars, plague, economic decline, political incompetence and corruption, poverty, and famine), so it’s little wonder that people are scared, and don’t know what will happen next or to them. Their own good news often pales in comparison, unless they focus on it, which might help to partly explain the overly positive self-presentation on social media.

Bad news may also come to be delivered preferentially by social media companies. Bad news grips people, like an oncoming train, so they read it more readily. The more that those sorts of bad news stories are accessed, the more the algorithm will deliver them in the future. Young people often believe it is pointless going elsewhere for their news, because they may not trust traditional media sources or politicians. All of this drives people back to the social media news source that is aversive to them, where they get more and more bad news, and they get more and more averted to that source—like rats to a box in which they’ve been repeatedly shocked.

The aversion leads to avoidance, and part of the avoidance strategy is hypervigilance—how else do you know what is coming to get you? People who are anxious about social media news are on the lookout for the very thing that they are afraid of—like scanning the room for that lurking arachnid that you just know is about to run at you. Paradoxically, the avoidance strategy the phobic has developed is now driving them back to look for the very thing that they want to avoid. This may be made worse as people can feel they have no other viable or trustworthy option than social media.

Thus, social media news fuels anxiety, which then fuels its use. Doubtless, social media companies have thought about this, as much of it works to their advantage. The more anxious about social media news people are, and the more stories of traditional media and political corruption abound, the more people will use social media, and the more anxious they will get. However, not all of this is a necessary and determined pattern—people do not have to become phobic of clowns, even if they can be a bit creepy. Recognising the drivers of behaviour, focusing on the positives that are meaningful to themselves, and knowing how social media works will all help to reduce anxiety and allow people to use these resources in a positive way.

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References

1. Newman, N. (15.6.22). Overview and key findings of the 2022 Digital News Report Overview and key findings of the 2022 Digital News Report | Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (ox.ac.uk)

2. BBC (19.6.22). New research indicates BBC News is the most trusted news outlet for teenagers as broadcaster launches campaign to help young people navigate fake news. BBC Media Centre. New research indicates BBC News is the most trusted news outlet for teenagers as broadcaster launches campaign to help young people navigate fake news - Media Centre

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