Studies have shown that scrolling through endless news feeds isn’t good for your mental health, and thanks to new research, we now know that it also affects your train of thought. With a focus on both COVID-19 related news and news media in general, the study revealed how news consumption can lead to your thoughts drifting throughout the day.
The research was led by Chelsie Hart, a doctoral student in University of Calgary professor Julia Kam’s Internal Attention Lab, and published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.
How does the news impact your train of thought?
The news never stops, and thanks to smartphones and other technology, it’s easy to spend hours each day browsing through your feeds. And while staying up-to-date with current events is important, the team behind the study wanted to learn how constant exposure to news media is impacting the way we think.
To do this, the team carried out two studies: one that focused specifically on COVID-19 related news, and another that focused on news media in general. In both cases, the research involved surveying study participants about their news consumption habits throughout their days.
In the first study, which focused on COVID-19, participants were sent four surveys at random times each day. They were asked about what they were doing immediately before receiving the survey, as well as what they were thinking about when they received the survey.
The researchers were specifically interested in learning whether the study participants’ thoughts were task-related — meaning they related to whatever the participants were doing — or task-unrelated, meaning they were focusing on something else.
“Basically, if you were writing an email but realized while you were writing that you were actually thinking about your plans for the weekend, you were having task-unrelated thoughts,” Hart explained in an interview.
The participants were then asked whether or not they’d consumed news related to COVID-19 in the two hours before receiving the survey. The results of the survey showed that participants who had engaged with pandemic-related news reported more task-unrelated thoughts than those who hadn’t.
In the second survey, participants were instead asked whether they’d consumed any news at all. While pandemic-related news can be distressing and, therefore, distracting, the researchers wanted to know if their findings also applied to the news in general.
“It also made sense for us to extend our results to news in general,” Hart said, “since COVID-19 news [is] becoming less prevalent.”
As in the first study, the researchers found that consuming news led to a greater chance of having task-unrelated thoughts. Participants who had engaged with any sort of news two hours before receiving the survey reported being more distracted from their current activities than those who had not.
Thinking about when to watch the news
While the results of both surveys show that the news may be distracting you from your work, the authors don’t think that this should lead anyone to avoid the news altogether. Instead, they recommend thinking about when you scroll through your news feeds throughout your day.
“[T]his isn’t to say you shouldn’t keep up to date on current events. Just considering when might be the best time for you to take in some news,” Hart suggested.
“So, maybe watch the news when you know the next tasks you’ll be doing are not ones that you need a lot of focus for, or tasks that may benefit from a little task-unrelated thought.”