The Effects of Media on Mental Health and Behavior
Television, newspapers, and radio broadcast the news 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, making it literally impossible to miss the bad news. Violence presented in news can have long-lasting effects on our mental health and behavior. Negativity in media is hard to ignore, as our brains are hardwired to focus on shocking news. However, negativity on television and other media can provoke negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In 2001, during terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, people nationwide spent a lot of time in front of their TV screens. Later studies showed that watching these images provoked fear and decreased viewers’ confidence in the state’s security. In addition, studies showed that the degree of people’s fear was directly correlated with the amount of time spent watching the news. Similarly, media can contribute to decreased empathy and violence desensitization. The National Television Violence Study, a three-year assessment of over 3,000 programs a year, showed that 60 percent of television programs across 26 channels contained some form of physical aggression. Media can put a lot of pressure on us and our moods. We can sometimes prioritize it over more important things such as our mental and physical health. Media persuasion has many implications – it affects our interpretation of information and our development. Moreover, media persuasion can make us judgmental towards others, which further can create stereotypes and prejudices and cause stigma in various ways. Exposure to graphic violence and negativity in media can provoke an over-sensitization, making us pessimistic and depressed. This pessimism can lead us to see only negative in the media, our life, and the world in general. Yet, exposure to violence in media can also lead to emotional and cognitive desensitization, where we show a reduced responsiveness to violence.
A large body of research today focuses on the relationship between media and our behavior and mental health. In recent decades, psychologists have studied this phenomenon from a theoretical perspective. Media psychology brings social theories to the media and focuses on the interaction between individuals, groups, and technology. The 1950s breakthrough of television as a leading form of entertainment amidst both children and adults raised concerns among psychologists about the impact of television on children’s reading skills and their behavior. During the 1960s, psychologists have begun studying the impact of violent television content on children’s behavior.
The Effects of Media on Our Behavior
In 1961, American psychologist Albert Bandura conducted a series of controversial experiments on observational learning, widely known as “Bobo doll” experiments. The main aim of these experiments was to study patterns of behavior by Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Namely, according to Bandura’s theory, people learn from one another through three main mechanisms:
- imitation, and
In his experiments, Bandura investigated whether a social behavior such as aggression can be learned by observation, imitation, and modeling – simply watching the behavior of another person. In fact, these experiments were a groundbreaking study on aggression that showed that children can learn through the observation and imitation of adult behavior. Although criticized on ethical grounds at the time, the results of Bandura’s experiment still have important implications for the effects of media violence on children. Moreover, studies on the impact of media led to the formation of American Psychological Association (APA) Society for Media Psychology and Technology – the community of psychologists, educators, researchers, and other mental health professionals actively involved with all forms of media technologies. The society supports the media-related studies and informs the public on the impact of media on human behavior. More on Albert Bandura’s experiments on observational learning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zerCK0lRjp8
Isolation and Loneliness
With the expansion of modern technologies in recent decades, media continue to consume even a greater amount of people’s lives. According to Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson, board certified children and adolescent psychiatrist, both adults and young people lack face-to-face interaction needed to learn and master their social skills. She believes that growing up with modern technologies can cause difficulties in interacting with others for an increasing number of children. Consequently, this can lead to unsociable behavior. With 24/7 access to the phones, the internet, and television, media appears as an answer to all questions children and youth may have. Dr. Vinson believes that caregivers need to limit their children’s screen-time, especially if it is holding them back from face-to-face interactions. Studies show that media and social media, specifically, substitute real-life social interaction and promote feelings of loneliness and social isolation. That is, the more time people spend on social media, the more isolated and lonelier these individuals perceive themselves to be. In addition, one study suggests that there is a certain cap on the number of friends each of us can handle. Furthermore, it takes real-life social interaction, not virtual, to maintain our friendships. A recent survey that sampled 55,000 people 16-24 years found that young people experience feelings of extreme loneliness and isolation, more often than any other age group. Two in five young persons say they feel lonely often or very often, compared to only 27 percent of survey participants aged 75 or older. Additionally, the survey results showed that people who report feeling lonely and isolated have more online-only Facebook friends than those who don’t feel lonely. Another study of 20,000 people 18-24 years old also showed that young people experience feelings of extreme isolation and loneliness, with 49 percent of participants reporting that they feel lonely sometimes or always while 43 percent says their relationships are not meaningful. Loneliness is intertwined with many mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Anxiety and Depression
According to one study published in Computers and Human Behavior, people who excessively use social platforms are more likely to develop high levels of anxiety and depression. These people demonstrate general anxiety symptoms such as troubles sleeping and concentrating, feelings of restlessness, and constant worry. In the same way, another survey of 1,700 social media users found the connection between the use of social media platforms and the risk of anxiety and depression. The researchers see the reasons for this in an inaccurate picture of other people’s lives, feeling that the time spent on social media is a waste, as well as in cyber-bullying. In addition, heavy social media users usually feel a decrease in subjective well-being over time. They report becoming envious and depressed. Witnessing other people’s “perfect” lives on Instagram or Facebook makes people jealous and unhappy with their own life circumstances, which ultimately leads to anxiety, depression, and declining confidence.
We often forget that the media is not life. Research indicates that television and social media have a negative impact on our values and expectations. They may also negatively affect our self-esteem. According to one survey of 1,500 people, social media platforms make half of the participants feel inadequate. Also, 60 percent of social media users report that these platforms negatively impacts their self-esteem. The social pressure to show a perfect life and impress others may lead to a constant pretending that our lives are much more exciting than they really are. Furthermore, the gap between whom we pretend to be in a virtual world and who we really are can trigger feelings of depression, isolation, and inadequacy. Likewise, the burden of presenting ourselves better than we are is making it harder to accept the less-perfect version of ourselves and seriously distress our confidence.
Many people use their phones, tablets or laptops right before they go to sleep, not seeing any issues with that. However, research has found that spending nights with the artificial lighting just inches from our face can inhibit the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that helps us fall asleep. In addition, consumed by anxiety, envy or worry from what we see on social media can keep our brain alert, preventing us from falling asleep. Experts suggest that we should leave our devices at least 40 minutes to an hour before going to bed, to allow our bodies and mind to relax before falling asleep.
Media and Stigma
Stigma occurs when a person is viewed as different and as such denied full social acceptance. Stigma is often linked to mental illness. And media are the main source of information when it comes to mental illness. Studies show that media representations of people with mental illness are commonly negative and contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness. Reinforcement of misconceptions and prejudices toward mental illness through the media spreads the mental health stigma causing shame, secrecy, and self-blame in affected individuals, discouraging them from seeking treatment. On the other hand, the media can play a significant role in overcoming stereotypes and reducing stigmatization. Media can educate, provide adequate information, and replace existing prejudices with coverage of positive examples and outcomes. The involvement of the media is vital for success in long anti-stigma campaigns that include educational and human rights-based approaches.
Ethical Implications of Media Use
Media today isn’t just about television, radio, printed media or video games. Mobile technologies, the web, and social media have been increasingly used in health care, education, and advertising. Research shows that almost 95 percent of people look online first when seeking professional mental health help. So, having an online presence can boost private practice for many psychologists and other health professionals. On that account, social media advertising by health care professionals has scaled almost 63 percent over the last decades. An increasing number of psychologists, doctors, and other professionals uses the web and social media as means to advertise and receive feedback. Many of them have a blog, Twitter, Instagram, or a Facebook page. They also use applications for scheduling appointments. Correspondingly, clients benefit from accessible health care and disease self-management tools. However, limited privacy, low communication barriers, and security issues in social media raise certain concerns from an ethical perspective. For example, advertising a private practice with a professional Facebook page can complicate the therapist-client relationship when a client wants to “friend” the therapist. For ethical reasons, the therapist must say no, of course. It is vital, therefore, that psychologists, physicians, and other healthcare providers ensure their borders between professional practice and personal life stay intact.
Screen Time and Video Gaming
Video gaming is an area that has been getting a lot of attention lately. The health professionals believe that video games have a great impact on children, adolescents, young adults, and even the 70-plus population. More than 90 percent of children and 97 percent of youth ages 12-17 regularly play video games. However, unlike the viewer of a television show, the gamer is an active participant. Both game violence and the screen-time raise concerns among parents and psychologists. Scientific evidence suggests that exposure to violent video games leads to increased aggressive behavior and decreased empathy. In addition, playing violent video games is an underlying cause for raising non-social behavior in children and youth.
Not All Screen Time is the Same
Studies show that games can engage students and inspire learning. It is the nature of the screen time and not the length that matters, researchers say. According to Mitchel Resnick, a director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, parents and teachers should try to make the most of creative time rather than minimizing screen time. In other words, instead of worrying about the device use limit, parents should consider whether hi-tech activities help develop a child’s imagination, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills. Game-based learning emerges as a tool for enthusiasm and engagement learning across both classrooms and homes. These new learning programs can be accessed from home where the family can be included in the learning process. Experts believe that digital technologies can help children master their digital literacy and spark their interest in science and other STEM disciplines (technology, engineering, and math). In addition, digital media can motivate young learners to pursue STEM careers in the future. Namely, recent reports show a shortage of professionals in the fields of technology disciplines, engineering, and computer science today. Technology is recognized as a successful tool to address these challenges. That is, digital media can provide children with interactive opportunities to learn about STEM disciplines and spark their interest in these disciplines. What’s more, research shows that games allow students to work together function as a team. Also, playing games can help students better deal with failure and success and improve their reaction times and decision-making.
Media has made significant contributions to our society in the past decades, there is no doubt in that. At the same time, media content may significantly affect our attitudes, beliefs, feelings, actions, and seriously influence our mental well-being.
Media psychology continues to explore and apply media potential for use in areas such as education, science, healthcare, business, entertainment, and much more. Furthermore, media psychologists continue to study the implications of media persuasion and its influence on our mood, thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Understanding the interactive relationship between media and society is key to better knowledge of how to use and develop technologies to connect, communicate, learn, discover new things, and improve our lives.