Time to switch off? Minimising the impact of media coverage of COVID-19 on our health

According to a new report published in Health Psychology, repeated media exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic can cause more harm than good

By Dr Edith Holloway

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is dominating our news and social media feeds, providing continual, unrelenting coverage of the unfolding crisis. The media serves as a key communication platform and plays a vital role in informing the community about the spread and impact of the virus, government action, and the success of attempts to contain the virus. It can reinforce the importance of protective health behaviours, such as hand washing and physical distancing, and highlight the positive effects of these behavioural strategies on containment. 

However, intense media attention can also be harmful to health. In a new commentary published in Health Psychology, Dr Dana Rose Garfin and colleagues review research on collective traumas conducted over the past two decades (for example Ebola, the H1N1 influenza pandemic and terrorist attacks such as 9/11). They discuss how widespread media coverage of a global crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, can increase emotional distress and have long-term consequences for physical health. For example, a national study found that increased media exposure during an outbreak of Ebola ‘was associated with increased distress worry and impaired functioning’. Another national study found high acute stress post-9/11 predicted new diagnoses of cardiovascular disorders in the following three years.  The commentary highlights that when looking at the negative impact of media exposure on physical and mental health, both the amount and type of media exposure matter.

The authors discuss a 4-step strategy to guide people during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1) Find a healthy balance in relation to news and social media. While it’s important to stay informed, reading, watching, or listening to upsetting media coverage for long periods of time can increase feelings of worry and anxiety. You may find it useful to limit your media intake if it is upsetting you or your family. It might be helpful to schedule a specific time to check in with the news – for example, limit to just 30 minutes in the morning and evening.

2) Seek accurate information. Finding credible sources you can trust is important to avoid the fear and panic that can be caused by misinformation. In particular, messaging around the risks associated with COVID-19 for people with diabetes can be overwhelming and upsetting. Follow evidence-based and reputable sources that are updated regularly, like the Australian Department of Health or Diabetes Australia or equivalents in your own state/territory.

3) The content of the exposure matters. Graphic images can increase distress and feelings of anxiety. Twitter and Instagram can be an alternative format of receiving information about COVID-19 without the use of graphic video footage and sensationalism. However, social media is also rife with misinformation and ‘fake news’. So, again, follow trusted sources, e.g. @HealthGovAu and @DiabetesAustralia, @DiabetesVic and the @NDSS_Aus which all provide regular communications and timely updates about COVID-19 via social media.

4) Take a break. Turn off your TV, tablet or phone. While keeping a safe physical distance, it is important to remain socially connected. It’s also okay to take breaks from conversations with others about COVID-19 and suggest talking about other topics. You can also read a book, exercise, listen to music, do a jigsaw puzzle, do yoga, bake, or play board games. Your body and mind will thank you for the break from the intensity of dealing with the pandemic.

If you are worried about COVID-19 and your diabetes, check out this NDSS leaflet about Managing worry about COVID-19 and diabetes

For more about COVID-19, read our other blogs here.

For more about emotional and mental health, read our other blogs here

Garfin DR, Silver RC, Holman EA. The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. Health Psychology, 2020. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000875

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