Too Much Coronavirus Media Exposure May Be Bad for Your Health
March 25, 2020
Within a matter of weeks, the coronavirus outbreak escalated into a global pandemic, with news media outlets providing continual coverage of the unfolding crisis. While it is critical for the public to have accurate and updated information on the spread of COVID-19, a related threat has emerged: psychological distress resulting from repeated media exposure to the pandemic. In a new paper in Health Psychology, psychologists Dana Rose Garfin, Roxane Cohen Silver, and E. Alison Holman discuss how widespread media coverage of a collective crisis like the coronavirus pandemic may amplify distress. The authors review research conducted over the past two decades on the role of exposure to media in acute and long-term health outcomes, and provide recommendations to guide individuals, health-care providers, and researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Media exposure during the 24/7 news cycle can increase perceptions of threat and activate the “fight or flight response,” which can lead to subsequent physical and mental health problems, the researchers found. Several studies conducted after previous collective traumas (such as mass violence events or natural disasters) have demonstrated that both the type and amount of media exposure matter when understanding psychological and physical responses in their aftermath.
For example, several hours of daily television exposure in the days after 9/11 was associated with increased posttraumatic stress and new-onset physical health problems 2 to 3 years later. High stress responses post-9/11 were associated with more cardiovascular ailments over the 3 years following the attacks, especially for people who were worried about future terrorism. Similarly, researchers have found that when people were exposed to several hours of daily media during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, they were more likely to experience increased distress and worry, as well as poorer functioning over time compared with people who consumed less media.
After the Boston Marathon bombings, acute stress symptoms were highest among people who reported the most media exposure, even when compared to people who were at the site of the bombings. This media exposure can also create a feedback loop of exposure and distress: People with the greatest concerns may seek out more media coverage of an event, which can further increase their distress. What people see also matters. After the Boston Marathon bombings, early repeated exposure to graphic, bloody images was associated with worse mental health and functioning months later.
During times of uncertainty and crisis, people rely on the media for risk assessments and recommendations for self-protective behaviors. Anxiety increases in the face of an uncertain or uncontrollable threat. Perceptions of risk and anxiety rise further when information is unknown or ineffectively communicated.
The authors argue that in the context of a global pandemic, this media-fueled distress may encourage behaviors that overtax the health-care system and divert important resources. In previous pandemics, high levels of media exposure resulted in a surge of emergency department visits, even in relatively low-risk communities. A similar phenomenon is playing out in response to the coronavirus outbreak, as consumers hoard facemasks and other essential goods that are critical to protecting health-care workers and communities at highest risk for COVID-19.
To help prevent distress caused by media coverage, the authors recommend that:
- The media convey information to the public without sensationalism and without disturbing images.
- The public choose one or two trusted sources (such as the, Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization) for information to stay abreast of critical updates, limit repetitious exposure to media stories, and be wary of reports on social media whose veracity cannot be ensured.
- Health scientists design and conduct such research during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide information that public health officials can use now and in the future.
- Community leaders and health-care providers clearly communicate with the public about practicing protective behaviors (such as handwashing, sanitizing surfaces, social distancing).
- Providers promote calm, rational action, and encourage tempered media consumption that may undermine public health efforts to combat the COVID-2019 outbreak most effectively.
Note: This article is in the Health Psychology and Medicine topic area. View more articles in the Health Psychology and Medicine topic area.