Media management can help you stay current without sacrificing well-being.
Violent images trigger fight or flight, decrease cognitive scrutiny, and increase persuasive impact.
TikTok is a go-to source for world events putting users at risk for emotional distress and misinformation.
Using media management strategies can protect your mental health.
It’s hard to escape the horrors of war when violent and gruesome images flood the media. Conflicting reports make staying current difficult, increasing our sense of “need to know”—leading quickly to doomscrolling behaviors such as those we saw during COVID-19. The tendency to look and keep looking is normal. It’s an instinctive reaction and part of our survival mechanism. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. How do you stay current without damaging your mental health?
From TV to TikTok: Changes in Information Flows
Vietnam was the first televised war. However, with only three major broadcast networks, access to information was limited. Keeping up required tuning in to nightly news coverage. But those days are long gone. Social media is now the main source of news for over half of Americans.
Images deliver more information faster than any other type of data. Images are processed by the brain 60,000 times faster than text, and videos have spatial and personal context, further amplifying emotional reactions embedded in memory due to the impact on the amygdala—the emotion center of the brain (Ewbank et al., 2009).
TikTok and Instagram videos on the Israel-Hamas conflict have drawn billions of views. They are gruesome and frightening illustrations of the violence of war. But not all of them are real.
There has always been misinformation in the media. The sheer volume of disinformation is often strategic, orchestrated to create fear and confusion and to take advantage of people’s falling trust in media, which has plummeted in recent years (Associated Press, 2023). This decrease in trust drives people to social media, where emotion is the main currency for attention. Emotional reactions, whether horror, compassion, or outrage, reduce cognitive scrutiny and counter-arguing and increase reactive and impulsive behaviors. The result is the mindless sharing of inaccurate and misleading content without taking the time to question or confirm.
Stressful Media Creates a Downward Emotional Spiral
Whether true or not, viewing graphic and violent images can be stress-inducing, increasing uncertainty and fear. A steady diet of negative news can increase the risk of anxiety and depression and make the world seem more dangerous (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). Our brains instinctively pay attention to any potentially dangerous situation to keep us safe as part of our survival mechanism. The brain’s inability to reliably distinguish between virtual images and real physical threats amplifies the fight-or-flight response.
Even the sheer volume of available information can create information FOMO, the sense that we are missing out on something critical to our well-being. This creates a self-reinforcing downward emotional spiral. Consuming violent and gruesome content creates a scary environment and causes anxiety. Anxiety triggers the need to know to make us feel more in control. The need to know sets off the urge to search and scan, which results in viewing more violent content, and so on and so on. The more stressed we become, the more we search, the worse we feel, and the more vulnerable we become to anyone who offers up “answers” so that the world makes sense again, like conspiracy theorists, compelling TikTokers, and other misinformers.
7 Media Management Strategies
Self-awareness is the key to dealing with distressful media content (and maybe life, too).
Pay attention to make sure your news consumption is giving you something new, and you’re not just ruminating and rereading. This is engaging in the online equivalent of rubber-necking.
Monitor the emotional impact of scrolling and be aware of your emotional limits before, during, and after reading about conflict or watching videos. If it’s really getting to you, keep a journal so you can identify patterns.
Taking a news break—even a short one—can help reset your brain, helping you to be more critical and less emotional when you evaluate what you’re seeing.
Evaluating your priorities creates perspective in case your news obsession is putting a dent in your productivity or general functioning.
Violent and negative content can affect not just you but those around you. No one wants to hang out with someone who is perpetually angry, raving, or unpleasant.
Avoid the misinformation trap by analyzing, triangulating, and validating information before you get emotionally carried away and start sharing.
If you’re going to read the news, do yourself a favor and front-load some silly cat videos or cooking demos to provide a positive emotional buffer.
Learning to manage media behaviors can enable you to monitor the news so that you feel well-informed—and avoid many of the paralyzing emotions that, in fact, make you less effective in other areas of your life. Anger and fear, or feeling out of control, diminish your ability to feel empathy for others and hamper your compassion, understanding, and ability to listen to different points of view. These are qualities we need all the time, but especially during times of crisis.
Ewbank, M. P., Barnard, P. J., Croucher, C. J., Ramponi, C., & Calder, A. J. (2009). The amygdala response to images with impact. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, 4(2), 127-133. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsn048
Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26(76).
Pamela Rutledge, PhD, is a scholar-practitioner, integrating her expertise in media psychology with 20+ years as a media producer. A member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University since 2008, Dr. Rutledge teaches in the areas of brand psychology, audience engagement and narrative meaning. Dr. Rutledge consults with entertainment companies, such as 20th Century Fox Films and Warner Bros., on data strategies and audience narratives. Dr. Rutledge has published both academic and popular work, including a text on positive psychology and psychological appeal for fans of the Twilight Saga and resilience in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She has also written book chapters on meaning-making and fandom, transmedia narrative engagement, and positive media psychology. She authors “Positively Media” for Psychology Today and is also a frequent expert source on media use and popular culture for media outlets such as The NY Times, The BBC World and ABC News. She holds a PhD and an MBA.