Media Consumption During The Pandemic: Mental Health and Physical Well-Being Consequences

Sapna Doshi, PhD - 1st Sep 2020

We all initially turned to media and were glued to our televisions and phones to get answers: What is COVID 19? How is it spreading? How can I keep myself and loved ones safe? What is safe and what isn't safe? How do I get tested? Can I go to work? How will I support myself and my family financially if I can't? How long is this going to last?

Fast forward 6 months and we're still turning to the media and our phones for more answers as a result of ongoing ambiguity and lack of clear, concise communication and guidance. As we turn to media for information, we cannot help but be exposed to stories and images about death and dying as it relates to COVID 19 and as it relates to unarmed Black Americans being killed by police officers and citizens dying amidst protests. The exposure to all of this through media can significantly impact our physical health and mental health well-being.

I recently came across an article in Health Psychology written by Garfin and colleagues (2020) where they reviewed past work on collective traumas such as 9/11 and the Boston Marathon Bombings and the impact of media exposure on public health. Their past research looking at increased media exposure, acute stress responses, and fear of terrorism in the early days of 9/11 predicted physical ailments, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and new cardiovascular issues 2-3 years later (Holeman et al., 2008; Silver et. al, 2013). Researchers also examined how indirect exposure to the Boston Marathon Bombings through media exposure was correlated with higher acute stress than people who were actually at or near the Boston Marathon Bombings (Holman, Garfin, & Silver, 2014).

Mertens and colleagues (2020) discussed in their recent publication that fear can be adaptive for survival in dangerous states. However, in long lasting public health crises like our current pandemic, it can have deleterious effects on mental health. They used a measure called Fear of the Coronavirus Questionnaire and found that variables that predicted increases in fear in participants included regular media use and social media use.

This past and new research highlights the impact of media exposure of traumatic events on our psychological well-being and the long-term health impacts it can have on our health as heart rates are consistently more elevated along with stress hormones and blood pressure. 

Yes, it's important to stay informed and active in what's going on in our country and across the world, but consider the following steps you can take to better protect your health and well-being:

1. Be mindful. As you consume media, pay attention to what happens in your mind and body. Are your thoughts racing? Are you increasingly feeling hopeless, scared, anxious, or depressed as you are exposed to media? Is your heart racing? Is your body tense? These are all signs that it's time to step away from the news and/or social media. Acknowledge to yourself that this is hard. Validate your emotional experience. Know it's okay and normal to feel the feelings you're having and then continue throughout your day making the priority taking good care of yourself. 

2. Staying COVID informed and staying healthy psychologically: As it pertains to COVID 19, draw boundaries with yourself and others. Limit your exposure and find a go-to reliable source. Do not spend hours on end reviewing news articles, reading things people are posting on social media, or watching news coverage on TV. Find one or two trusted sources for information and guidance that you can turn to that provide clear and concise information (i.e. CDC, WHO, local government websites). If you are having trouble limiting exposure to news on your phone, consider deleting social media and news apps and/or unfollow accounts on social media that increasingly expose you to stressful and anxiety-inducing content. 

3. BLM & Sustainability In The Movement: As it pertains to the media exposure to unarmed Black Americans being killed, police brutality, racism, social injustice, etc., follow the recommendations above and limit exposure to graphic videos and images in an ongoing way. Just watching these videos one time can bring up past traumas and all kinds of difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions. So, seek therapy, talk to people, get help around processing your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It's important that we stay informed and educated, and take action, yes. But, this is also not an issue that will change overnight. These issues are deeply systemic. Avoidance is not the answer, but to be able to sustain our energy to address these emotional and difficult issues in our country for the long haul, we have to pace ourselves, especially during a pandemic. So think about how you can stay involved in ways that feel manageable to you in your life right now, in ways that allow you to take breaks to recharge, and in ways that will not lead to burnout or stress to the point of physical and/or psychological harm.

4. Trade news and social media in for Netflix shows, movies, or other activities. We're in a pandemic and we're often at home without many external outlets. So when boredom sets in, the pull to turn to television and our phones is higher than ever. I typically wouldn't recommend binge watching shows all day, but we are in a pandemic and there is no "typical." Be mindful and pay attention to how you're feeling as you binge watch shows. Does watching shows all day make you really happy? Is it fun and enjoyable? Great, go for it! If you notice after an hour or two, you're getting restless, you're feeling more depressed, you're less engaged and getting more lost in your thoughts and feelings, maybe pause and again validate and honor what's coming up for you in that moment. Proceed in taking good care of yourself by switching things up to another activity (read a book, go for a walk, facetime a friend, journal, cook a meal, do a tiktok dance video, etc).

Leave a Comment