Healthy Media Use During Stressful Times

Although social media and the 24/7 news cycle are not new, they have become much more pronounced as much of the U.S. has engaged in social distancing measures. In recent months, the role of the media has been amplified for those of us living in the U.S. who still seem locked in an enduring and grueling election cycle. Even those of us who used to rely solely on standard news outlets may now be scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram to stay up to date on current events (often alternating between two platforms at any given moment).

Given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC communities and the increased, and often graphic, media coverage of violence towards Black folx, it is important to acknowledge that media might be experienced differently depending on individual identities. Disconnecting from media and the news can feel impossible during tumultuous times like these, and it can often come with guilt and sadness. As a White student and therapist, unplugging can feel antithetical to the pursuit of being anti-racist and advocating for equity.

Discussing media consumption with peers, supervisors, and professors during the election provided a peek into the varying approaches to media consumption during a uniquely stressful period. Some opted to keep refreshing the Associated Press website, while others followed a carefully chosen Twitter profile. For some people, reading news updates and tweets from other cities was comforting. For others, it increased anxiety to an even higher level in the face of the multi-day uncertainty. Personally, I made a pact with my partner to check the news at certain times of day, but in full transparency, my own approach became less effective as days wore on. My patience diminished after day two of the election and I soon started to refresh my News application at least every other hour.

As I thought about these different approaches, I began wondering about what healthy media consumption looks like. While there are not any research-supported best practices for managing media usage during an extended election period in the midst of a global pandemic, I found myself curious to learn what research exists on media consumption during generally stressful periods. We are going to continue to need those skills as COVID-19 numbers rise and families grapple with how to manage holidays in a time when gathering together poses great risk. So, I wanted to pull together resources that will be helpful for counseling psychology folx and our clients.

Here is what we know about healthy media consumption during times of stress:

  • Amount matters: Increased exposure to distressing news is associated with increased acute stress symptoms (e.g., irritability, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration)
  • Type of media matters: More graphic and distressing images are associated with increased fear and stress
  • Source matters: It is important to rely on reputable sources of information and news

With these ideas in mind, it is possible to consume media in a healthy, helpful way.

  • It is useful to establish a pattern to your news consumption and set limits for yourself. For example, only checking the news once in the morning and once in the evening.
  • Assess how consuming different types of media makes you feel. If you find yourself feeling more anxious after seeing graphic images related to COVID-19, try listening to news via radio or podcast.
  • Choose your media wisely. Choose sources that are reputable and fact-driven; when evaluating a source, pay attention to the URL, learn more about the source by checking out the “About Us” section on the website, and remain cautious of attention-grabbing headlines.
  • For COVID-19 specific news, it can be helpful to rely on the WHO and CDC for information and recommendations.

The guidelines listed here are not meant to cure the media related stress that we are facing in this moment, but I am hopeful that it will provide a starting point. It is important for us to remember we are in this together and that taking a break from media can be an act of self-care. Open dialogue and mutual support may be the strongest antidote against media overload. The work we are doing is important, especially for the clients who leave their constant refreshing of media feeds for the safe haven of a grounded conversation with someone who cares.

By: Hannah Heitz, BA (she/her/hers)

Hannah Heitz is a Counseling Psychology doctoral student at the University of Louisville. Hannah is a member of the Social Inequities in Health Lab and her research is focused on evaluating inequities and health outcomes through a strengths-based lens.

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