Managing Media Consumption And Mental Health During The Pandemic

May 26, 2020

Quarantine means people have a lot of time on their hands — and many are spending it with a phone, computer, or TV screen. But what kind of media and how much you consume during the COVID-19 pandemic can take a big toll on your mental health.

Turn on any radio or television station and you can probably predict what the news will be: More confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, more COVID-19 related deaths, and more disagreement over when and how to return to normal.

Rachelle Pavelko, a professor in Bradley University's Department of Communcation, said the exposure to negative or stressful news is constant.

"If you wanted to, you could consume media about the pandemic 24/7," she said. "Having that kind of constant news cycle coverage can get super overwhelming for most people."

Add to that the challenge of discerning the real from the false. Pavelko said there are concerns over who has access to information in the first place, and how well people have been trained to spot inaccuracies.

"We're seeing a lot of that stuff — just people pulling stuff from the CDC and really tailoring information into a new narrative, or just spreading completely inaccurate information," she said.

First and foremost, she said, it's important to use reliable sources.

"I think triangulation of sources is really important," she said. "If you read something, see if you can find that same sort of data somewhere else. Is this the only source that's saying that? Trying to find some kind of credibility, science-based data — especially when it comes to social media."

Anecdotal information should not be conflated with truth, Pavelko said. Nor should one person's opinion, no matter how many likes or comments it solicits.

Pavelko said it's more important than ever to curate your social media list, whether that's news sites or family and friends.

"Be comfortable knowing that if it's someone in your social circle, maybe they're muted right now — they're just simply not beneficial to your mental health," she said. "That doesn't mean that relationship is over. With different media sources, that might mean that's one that you don't go back to."

That includes those who use language you find damaging. Pavelko said she's seen a lot of stigmatizing language around those who are anxious or fearful to go outside during the pandemic. Viral videos of people harassing retail workers and others wearing masks in public can elevate politicized and hateful conversations in the comments sections.

At some point, she said, it's time to unplug altogether.

"Trying to find what your limit is — where you feel like you're still being informed and you know what's going on, but it's not becoming detrimental to your mental health — is really important," she said.

Finding what feels good to you is key, Pavelko said, but it's also important to note that could change by the day.

"Some days, maybe watching the local news in the morning is enough to get your fill, and then the rest of your media consumption the rest of the day is going to be more lighthearted," she said.

That could be your favorite podcast or whatever you're binge-watching on Netflix.

Pavelko said when it comes to cultural media, it's important to embrace whatever's helpful to you in the moment. For some, she said, watching movies like "Pandemic" or "Contagion" may be a means of processing what's happening in the world. Others might think that's too much to handle.

Pavelko said many are reverting to old favorites as a source of comfort.

"Should I watch a new series or should I watch 'Friends' for the 15th time? Some things just feel super comfortable and that's always going to be what you're drawn towards when you're having a particularly anxious or down day," she said.

Binging TV as a means of distraction from the uncertainty has also become increasingly popular during the shelter-in-place period, Pavelko said. And while some might feel guilty for not being productive with those hours, sometimes it's the break your brain needs.

"People are still judging those standards based on what was normal pre-pandemic and saying, 'I don't feel like I've been super productive today.' As soon as you step back, you're like, 'Well, of course not. You're living in this unknown, super anxious world where productivity no longer means the same thing,'" she said. "Some days you might be able to respond to one email and feel completely drained. Other days might feel normal and you're able to do your regular sort of work schedule."

Pavelko said hard as it may be at times, it's important to be patient and kind with yourself: Consider your emotions often and be conscious about how what you're reading, watching, and listening to is contributing to how you're feeling.

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