09/29/2014 09:58 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

Media and Mood: What We Consume Matters More Than We Think

Gianluca Rasile via Getty Images

Between time spent online and watching TV, many of us are exposed to an almost unending stream of information, and for many of us we receive a constant flow of news. In recent weeks, we have heard of the suicide of Robin Williams, the horrendous beheadings by ISIS, continuing unrest in the Middle East, the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the various NFL incidents, among others. During this time, we have commemorated World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, 2014. It is worth taking a moment to consider what impact the content and format of reporting has on our emotional lives and mental health and maybe even safety.

There are lessons to be learned from suicide prevention.

We have known for quite some time that how the media reports on suicide can have a measurable impact on subsequent suicide rates, and recently a national leadership group published detailed guidelines on reporting about suicide . We know that the way a story is presented seems to have impact on the feelings and behavior of those reading the story. The more dramatic, detailed and pictorial the story, the more it is likely to impact feelings and behavior. Think of the Ray Rice episode . When the story first broke, all the basic facts were known. There was outcry and a brief suspension. When the video/pictures of the episode emerged, people had a more emotional and visceral reaction. The pictures/video seemed to change everything, and yet nothing had really changed about what we knew. Our emotional response was intensified by the pictures.

When more details of a suicide are presented (method, location, and intimate details about the person who died, for example) it is easier to identify and feel emotionally connected to the story and event. For some small number of people who are struggling with suicidal feelings themselves, this personal connection can increase their own risk. With a more clearly drawn image of the person and the death, they can emotionally connect and see themselves too as a potential suicide.

Several months ago, there was controversy about a study conducted by Facebook and researchers at Cornell University which, in spite of the ethical concerns raised, lent further support to the idea that content of social media can impact peoples' moods. When news feeds were adjusted to present more depressing content, posts on Facebook reflected more negative emotional states.

So it is pretty clear that for those with vulnerability to anxiety and depression, a steady stream of graphically conveyed news stories can at the very least lower mood and increase anxiety. And more worrisome, it may be the case that lurid reporting of murders and murder suicides might also slightly increase chances of copycat behavior in this setting as well.

By its nature, online and TV reporting that is heavily video-based tends to be more dramatic, pictorial and florid -- more emotionally intense. This added drama of online and TV-based media is certainly more emotionally engaging and interesting but at the same time runs the risk of being harmful in large doses or to those who might be susceptible. Same facts presented with dramatic picture or extreme detail can have a completely different impact on emotional state.

What should we do?

I am not suggesting that people disconnect from the world and not keep abreast of what is happening. I am suggesting that it is useful to be cognizant of the emotional impact this kind of reporting may have. It might make sense to try to manage our "dosage" of news intake to a manageable level. (OK, it is a little ironic to be discussing this on an online media news outlet!)

  • If you find yourself getting stressed out by the constant stream of news, set times during the day to check in on websites and cable news -- but take breaks.
  • If you struggle with anxiety or depression, be especially careful in managing your time on news sites or watching TV. Monitor your mood and decide how much is okay.
  • Yes, we should be involved, concerned, and there are times to be indignant and worried about the state of things. But we should not allow ourselves to be manipulated into these states by media who are trying to be dramatic or needlessly provocative. It is not healthy.
  • If you are watching news shows or following news on social media and regularly find yourself anxious or depressed, try another medium -- switch to more written content and away from talking (or shouting) heads.

Switch to sites that convey some good or happy news stories or watch a good comedy. It might be good for you.

I will comment soon about suggestions for media to reduce the risk of copycat violent behavior.

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