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The global outbreak of Covid-19 changed the way we consume media. Vigorously refreshing news sites multiple times a day in order to get the latest on how your country is affected? I did that. Scrolling on social media absentmindedly for hours on end to see what everyone else is up to in quarantine? Did that too. When does the need to stay informed and in the loop become harmful – when is it simply too much?

 

Excessive media use in times of crisis

During a public health crisis such as the global Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of news as a source of verified information from official sources is in the spotlight. Credibility encourages the use of traditional news media, whilst information overload discourages it (Austin, Liu & Jin, 2012). New research suggests that inequalities in news consumption amongst citizens have somewhat reduced during the pandemic, meaning that people who usually do not engage with news media have reconnected with it (Andreu, 2020). If there are benefits to be found in excessive media use in times of crisis, the knowledge gap between avid and irregular consumers of news media is definitely one. 

As we follow news stories in a crisis, we might get the feeling that the only pieces of information that make the news are negative ones. This is because, simply put, ill news spreads apace. A study in 2015 found that people disseminate more negative than positive information in general; that negative information is disseminated to more recipients for a longer period of time and is done so with more detail and elaboration (Hornik, Shaanan Satchi, Cesareo, Pastorec, 2015). This means that we tend to focus more on the negative. This in particular is one of the many reasons why reducing your consumption of news in times of crisis can have a calming effect on your mental health. 

Apart from traditional news media, social media has played the role of friend, parent, entertainer and educator, amongst others, during the social distancing spring of 2020. That is not an unusual pattern. Crisis communication studies have found that audiences tend to use traditional media for educational purposes, whilst social media serves the need for insider information as well as checking in with family and friends (Austin, Liu & Jin, 2012). It has also served as a constant reminder that we are not alone in our loneliness. Using social media as a source of information in times of crisis when the flow of information from official sources is slow due to fact-checking, however, can lead to information disorders and the spread of false reports (Himma-Kadakas, 2017), as has happened during the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, an infodemic has been generated by the large amount of information on the outbreak and the difficulty of sorting science-based information from conspiracy theories (WHO, 2020), so be sure to double check your sources.

 

The youth as a risk group

A crisis is a disruption of our normal or daily routines. Excessive media use has become part of the daily routines of many, especially amongst the youth: an estimated 20% of adolescents use social media for more than 5 hours per day (Scott, Biello & Woods, 2019). 

The first generation of youngsters who grew up with smartphones and social media have media consumption habits that can become a vicious cycle. College students and binge-watching (consuming a whole series of a TV show in a short window of time) is a good example. Research shows that college students binge-watch because of the advertising effectiveness of platforms that stream TV shows on demand (think meme culture as well as the social influence that comes with it), because of the accessibility of TV shows and to simply escape reality, but they are more likely to spend time binge-watching if they are negatively gratified (Panda, Pandey, 2017). That paints a picture of someone spending a few days watching a TV show and then starting another marathon to escape the anxiety of not having done much during their binge-watching marathon. 

The excess is not usually limited to a specific medium – excessive media use can include all variety of behavioural patterns from gaming and gambling to simply spending too much time on the Internet. The latter has been proven to be connected to depression, loneliness, anxiety, negative self-image as well as drops in mental health (Ciarrochi, Parker, Sahdra, Marshall, Jackson, Gloster, & Heaven, 2016; Gamez-Guadix, 2014; Lam and Peng, 2010). Furthermore, a connection has been made between adolescents who have burnt out at school and being more at risk for excessive Internet use and symptoms of depression (Salmela-Aro, Upadyaya, Hakkarainen, Lonka, Alho, 2017). If your level of emotional engagement with your surroundings and your anxiety levels put you in the risk group, it is a cycle that is very hard to break, as excessive media consumption can simultaneously offer gratification and exacerbate the problem.

 

Am I addicted?

There is no current agreement within the medical community on whether excessive media use is an addiction, but the recounts of people looking back on their relationship with social media often display the symptoms of addiction (Griffiths, Kuss, Demetrovics, 2014). For instance, people find a hard time limiting their time spent on social media, even after making efforts to do so and experience symptoms of withdrawal when they cannot use social media for a certain period (Bányai, Zsila, Király, Maraz, Elekes, Griffiths, Schou Andreassen, Demetrovics, 2017). 

Overuse of social media may be paralleled with heavy substance use and behavioural addictions. Immoderate use of social media is directly linked to feelings of social anxiety (Lee-Won, Herzog, Park, 2015) and symptoms of depression (Bányai et al., 2017; Ciarrochi et al., 2016; Gamez-Guadix, 2014).

Why? The same theory of self-medication as with other addictive disorders applies to excessive Internet use as well (Kuss, Dunn, Wölfling, Müller, Hedzelek, Marcinkowski, 2017): we use it as a dysfunctional coping mechanism.

The first step to recovery from any addiction is acknowledging the problem, so self-diagnosing or diagnosing the person you are worried about is a good starting point. 

A questionnaire by Dr Kimberly S. Young called the Internet Addict Diagnostic Questionnaire or IADQ helps with diagnosis: answering positively to 5 out of the 8 questions may indicate an online addiction.

  1. Are you preoccupied with using the Internet? Do you think about your previous or future online activity?
  2. Do you have the need to be online longer to be satisfied?
  3. Have you made repeated but unsuccessful attempts to cut back, stop or control your Internet use?
  4. Do you become moody, restless, irritable or depressed when you stop or decrease your Internet use?
  5. Is your time spent online longer than what you originally planned?
  6. Did your online use negatively affect a significant relationship, education, career or job?
  7. Do you conceal the extent of your Internet usage from your therapist, family or others?
  8. Does the Internet serve as an escape from problems or relief from a bad mood?

Another and more elaborate quiz by Psych Central can be found here

If you answered yes to only a few, you’re more likely to be a habitual user and could reduce your dependency by digital detox strategies such as (Unifrog, 2020):

  • turning off or muting notifications
  • setting limits on how often you’re allowed to check your phone
  • setting aside periods in the day for non-screen time
  • not checking social media before bedtime (leave phone in another room to resist the urge)
  • telling friends and family you’re going on a digital detox and asking them to support you
  • suspending your social media accounts for gradually increasing amounts of time
  • getting an analogue watch and alarm clock to avoid checking your phone too often
  • trying app blockers or smartphone monitoring apps such as App Detox, Space or Tracky

Read more on treating Internet addiction, breaking social media addiction, preventing technology addiction in children and adolescents, the struggles of video game addiction and mindful smartphone use.

Authors

Photo of Maia Klaassen
Maia Klaassen

Maia is a media and information literacy (MIL) researcher, tutor and a freelance journalist. Most of her time is devoted to her alma mater and employer, the University of Tartu. Working as a development specialist, her job is to build a network and coordinate efforts to consolidate MIL theorists and practitioners in the Baltic Sea Region. As a student her research is focused on information disorders and strategic narratives, with an emphasis on the effect an instable and manipulative information environment can have on society. Having trained over 500 people close to her own age and taught several courses in the university for both BA and MA level students, Maia has experience with narrative-based teaching, where the most heavy didactic focus is on using lived experience as examples and discussion points that enable to step in another’s shoes. Current areas of focus: Establishing an organically functioning network of MIL trainers in the Baltics, sourcing open-for-all technological tools for the detection of manipulation, creating audiovisual materials in Estonian on MIL topics for teachers, researching strategic narratives on Estonia and NATO’s cyber defense capabilities.