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Feeling Anxious? Try Broadening Your News Feed

Journalism, iSchool Researchers Find That How We Build Our Online Information Environments Matters

By Chris Carroll

Hand scrolling through news on a smartphone

Photo by iStock

UMD research found that our methods of gathering online information may influence how anxious or calm we feel.

As the whole world hunkers down and waits the novel coronavirus to just buzz off, there’s one popular way to pass time when parks, movie theaters and restaurants are closed and the only thing on the menu seems to be social distancing: diving headfirst into social media and online news.

But as recent research at the University of Maryland published in Social Media + Society found, our methods of gathering that online information may influence whether we’re left cowering in fear of the unknown, or more calmly deal with events we can’t control.

The research, part of Brooke Auxier Ph.D. ’19’s doctoral work in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, explored digital users’ feelings of information overload: Can we control such sensations by wisely choosing our online news?

“The point of the study was to find out how people customize their digital news environments,” said Auxier, now an internet and technology researcher at the Pew Research Center. “We found that how you do this really does correlate to anxiety—being extremely focused on one point of view or one source plays a role in more anxiety, while really diversifying your sources could help lower your sense of anxiety.”

Social media websites and apps and various online tools—not to mention algorithms that observe your reading habits and seek to feed you similar information—all make it easy to tightly tailor your news environment. Every “like” you give content tagged as left- or right-leaning, for instance, makes it more likely you’ll primarily be served such content online, until your feeds are “saturated with content that only explores a narrow viewpoint,” according to the paper

To determine how users shape their news environments, Auxier—working with mentor and coauthor Jessica Vitak, associate professor of information studies—gathered more than 300 surveys about online news behaviors with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform. Measures included not only levels of news feed customization, but political partisanship as well. 

The results, they reported, were that consumers who actively tried to diversify their news streams by interacting with people and content espousing different points of view reported lower levels of anxiety related to current events. Those who pursued partisanship online felt edgier.

“We found that Republicans and Democrats both customize i.e. narrow (news sources) more than independents do,” Auxier said. “The survey was done not long after the 2016 election, which was probably why we found Democrats were more anxious about current events, versus Republicans or independents.”

Republicans, she said, were more likely to be “echo chamber builders”—attempting to block out all opposing viewpoints from news feeds and unfriending dissenters. 

The study’s lessons are applicable to the current moment, Vitak said, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to sequester in their own homes, where they frequently turn to their social media accounts for information, or just to relieve boredom.

“I think just about everybody is feeling some information overload and a lot of anxiety now,” she said. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard a lot of people saying they’re spending more time scrolling through their feeds. Maybe it’s just to see that other people are experiencing the same cabin fever.”

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