How thoughtful media use can help us cope with stress and connect with others
My goal with this blog post is to convince you that media are important and potentially beneficial parts of our lives, by talking about cats. Cat videos, to be specific. I am allergic to real cats. I think felines are fine, but I cannot spend too much time around them. However, that did not stop me from seeing them pop up in my social media feed all the time. Internet cats were everywhere. As someone who studies media use and the psychological effects of media use, I was intrigued as to why this was (and, okay, as someone more partial to dogs, I also did not quite understand the obsession).
After a little digging, I discovered that cat videos were the most popular genre on YouTube, yet media scholars had completely abstained from conducting empirical research about cat videos—why are they made, why do so many people watch them, how do they affect the millions and millions of people who watch them every day? How could media researchers really be ignoring one of the most popular forms of digital media, I wondered out loud, and kept bemoaning that somebody needed to study Internet cat videos and their effects on audiences.
Eventually, my husband suggested I should just study the phenomenon myself since nobody else was doing it. So, while working at my previous institution, I published a study using a large survey dataset to explore who watches online cat videos, why, and to what effect. My findings suggested that simply watching one cat video could improve people’s mood and even increase their energy levels. Moreover, people in my survey reported frequently sharing, liking, and commenting on Internet cat posts, suggesting that these digital felines serve as a source of connection for humans. I had people reach out to me from all over the world telling me how my research corroborated their own experiences meeting real people and bonding over a shared joy of funny and cute cat videos. Others told me how cat videos had helped them cope with scary cancer diagnoses, difficult divorces, and toxic work environments. It quickly became evident to me that Internet cats were an important part of our mediated lives and culture, not just something we use to procrastinate (although they are great for that, too, as my research confirmed).
Not long after the study attracted copious media attention, a staffer from a member of the U.S. House of Representatives emailed me. This staffer was asking me for details as to how I funded the study and what the real purpose of the study was. The underlying tone of the email was questioning why a faculty member at a public university would be spending time and money on what was perceived as trivial work. I was really frustrated that some people so quickly dismissed the joy and connection that media can bring to our lives if we let it. From this point on, whenever I had a chance to talk to about my research, I sounded like an evangelical preacher, professing the potential for media (particularly social media about our pets) to lift our spirits and connect us with others if we use it right.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took over our news cycles and daily lives, I found a familiar frustration building inside me, though. Everywhere, it seemed, people and organizations were blaming “the media” for our pandemic-related stress, for the spread of misinformation, and for our general malaise during this difficult time. These claims are not totally without merit, of course. During previous times of crisis and collective traumas (e.g., Ebola scares or terrorist attacks), research has found that consuming media about these events is associated with increased distress and anxiety. In fact, a loop can develop where feelings of uncertainty caused by the crisis lead anxious individuals to seek out media about the crisis, but that media coverage then triggers even more distress.
How does this relate to cat videos, you might be wondering about now. It does, I promise. The short answer is that watching a cat video on Facebook is a lot different than watching a one-hour documentary on the deadliest infectious diseases in world history. In fact, one of the first things I teach my undergraduate students is that “media” is a plural word, a catch-all for lots of different types and formats of content. For example, research conducted in the spring of 2020 found that reliance on news websites for COVID-19 information increased knowledge about the pandemic, but reliance on social media websites predicted greater endorsement of COVID-related misinformation. This is one of many examples about how it is dangerous to lump all forms of media into the same bucket if we want to understand the harms and benefits of media in our individual lives and in society, more broadly.
My main point is that we need to be cautious about making claims about what “the media” do or do not do to us, psychologically, as there are many, many different types and formats of media. The content itself, the medium of delivery, the features of those mediums (e.g., how interactive it is), and how those factors intersect with our own personalities and life experiences can all influence how we respond to media messages. Yet, these nuances of media effects are often lost on public discussions around the role of media in shaping our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we cut out all social media, for example, to avoid misinformation, then what would be the unintended negative consequences? Below I detail a couple additional examples where public discourse and empirical research on media effects diverge.
Teens and social media
Many news stories and parenting influencers claim that social media use is harmful for teenagers. Undoubtably, social media use does negatively influence some teens, just like marijuana use and parents getting divorced and large class sizes and any other number of factors that sometimes lead kids astray. Notably, longitudinal research suggests that mere frequency of social media use does not cause harmful outcomes. Instead, how teens respond to that use (does it cause them high levels of stress, for instance) and other factors, like the gender of the social media user (girls more so than boys, for example), are associated with negative outcomes (e.g., decreased sleep) from social media use. Research using saliva to assess biomarkers of stress found that depressed adolescents, but not healthy adolescents, exhibited stress responses after social media use. Long story short: Some teens are more likely to respond negatively to social media use, while others (particularly individuals from marginalized groups or those facing health issues ) effectively use it to find connection, social support, and even just a cute cat video to lift their spirits.
Media use and sleep
People often blame media use for poor sleep habits, but rigorous research on the cause-and-effect nature of that relationship was lacking. Recent work using media diaries and EEG measures of brain activity found, however, that low doses of non-stressful media prior to bedtime does not decrease sleep quality and, if the media use occurred in bed the hour before bedtime, it was actually linked with increased total sleep time. Other work has shown that university students who use multiple types of media during the hours before bedtime in fact sleep more than those who do not use as diverse of an array of media. The authors of this study posit that the motivations for media use and the goals people have around it likely shifts whether it delays sleep or helps people feel accomplished (or, even cognitively fatigued) enough to rest more peacefully at night. As with teens and social media use, the context (i.e., type of media and type of person using it, and state that person is in) is key for determining if media before bed harms or helps sleep.
Considering the benefits of media use
I in no way intend to ignore or minimize the harms that certain types of media can cause. However, let’s not throw the baby out with the digital bathwater. While the public discourse around media use includes the strongly held notion that it stresses us out, is a waste of time, and even makes us dumb, other research indicates that media use is an important part of our lives, one that can even make us happier and better people if we do it right. For instance, my Penn State colleague, Dr. Mary Beth Oliver, and her colleagues have published more than a decade of research on the role of meaningful media experiences in enriching our lives, helping us connect with each other, and gaining a deeper appreciation of both humanity and nature. These might include YouTube videos about “free hugs” or watching a documentary showing the wonders of the natural world.
We can also strategically use media to help us manage our stress. Previous surveys of college students and cancer patients find media use to be a common strategy for coping with stress, one they perceive to be an effective tool alongside other popular coping strategies like exercise and being with friends. In the more recent context of COVID-19, my colleagues and I found that viewing three memes about COVID-19 was linked with decreased stress levels and increased confidence in one’s ability to cope with the stressors associated with living through a pandemic.
Being thoughtful media consumers
So, if media are both bad and good for us, what’s a Netflix watching, podcast listening, smart phone carrying person to do? The “trick” is to think more about your own media use and learn more about how it might be influencing your life. If you notice a particular newscast is stressing you out, then take a break. If you notice that certain accounts you follow on social media always make you furrow your brow, then unfollow them. And if you are positive you know for sure how media affect you or other people, take a moment to dig into the research and see if the data match your presuppositions. We have the agency to choose our media diets just like we chose what to eat for meals and snacks. And like a cat who would never settle for a subpar meal, be picky about what you put in front of your eyes, and you might find that media can bring more joy into your life than you realized.