In today’s media environment, it can seem that all news channels provide 24/7 coverage on COVID-19. I have had countless conversations with people talking about how after they emerged from a coronavirus ‘rabbit hole’ via (social) media, they felt physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. While it may seem almost impossible to avoid this kind of exposure, evidence strongly suggests this is an essential step to protect our mental health.
In one immensely powerful and thought-provoking study, researchers surveyed over 4500 individuals two to four weeks after the Boston Marathon Bombing. In particular, the respondents were asked to indicate the level of acute stress they had experienced because of the bombings as well as how much media coverage they watched about it. Examples of acute stress included, unwelcome thoughts, feeling jumpy, or being overly anxious about situations.
Interestingly, people who watched six or more hours a day of media-related coverage of the bombing were nine times more likely to experience high levels of acute stress than individuals who watched the least amount (e.g., one hour a day).
What was particularly striking about this research is that individuals who had the highest levels of media exposure (e.g., six or more hours of daily exposure) reported higher levels of acute stress symptoms than people who were directly exposed to the event (e.g., they were physically there).
This showcases how potentially damaging our exposure to media can be.
However, it is important to recognize that not all media is created equal. Obtaining information that is relevant to our situation is beneficial, as it builds resilience by reducing ambiguity and empowering us to take action. Therefore, watching public health experts or reports on local business can equip us with needed information.
When it comes to social media, however, we need to be much more careful consumers. The spread of misinformation is ever-increasing and creates tremendous anxiety.
Unfortunately, many of us can make the assumption that we have the willpower to step away from social media—and media in general—when we wish. However, anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests this belief is misguided.
One simple, yet effective strategy that we can use is to set our phone alarm for 15-20 minutes. This ensures that we do not get absorbed in the black hole of media—social or otherwise. It allows us to immerse ourselves with the knowledge that we have a safeguard in place.
When the alarm goes off, this does not necessarily mean you stop watching. If you feel the content is adding to your feelings of control and awareness, then you can continue. The trick is to set another alarm to create another safeguard. This protects us from ourselves.
While ‘knowledge is power,’ it may come with a cost. As the pandemic continues, we may wish to think about how much exposure we allow ourselves to have to media in all forms. By taking control and being more mindful of the quantity and quality of information, we can empower ourselves with the resources we need to navigate our “new normal.”