Student Mental Health and Media: When is it Time to Unplug?

7 min

Melina Acosta
Melina Acosta

Catching up on the news can sometimes leave us feeling more pessimistic than informed. Some may avoid the media altogether to spare themselves the stress, while others are glued to their screens, unable to disengage from the 24/7 coverage. How can we balance our mental health with staying up to date on current events? What implications does this have on college student mental health?

We interviewed Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a psychologist and researcher on mental health and media at the University of Texas at San Antonio, to find out!

The Relationship between Media and Mental Health

The media weren’t always as pervasive as they are today. Technological advances in communications, especially social media, transformed the news from a once-a-day occurrence in the form of the nightly news or daily paper, to a non-stop barrage of news stories from every electronic device we own. “Throughout history, it’s been too hard to get information and not enough people knew what was happening,” shared Dr. McNaughton-Cassill. “Now, it’s too easy to get information, and we don’t know how to sift it.”

The expansion of news media has been accompanied by a change in the tone of news delivery. Dr. McNaughton-Cassill discussed the factors that contributed to the rise of sensationalist news. “To sustain 24/7 news coverage, [media outlets] have to make the news pretty sensational and catastrophic to catch viewers’ interests.”

“They are funded by advertisements and are competing with reality shows and other channels to get viewers, so they very much showcase the negative and the sensational. The advantage of earlier, more neutral media was that the news channels saw the news as a public service, so they didn’t require the nightly news to make a profit; but today, they do.”

What impact does constant news have on college student mental health? While no definitive research has been done to compare how media affects college-aged students differently than other age groups, Dr. McNaughton-Cassill’s research with college students shows that news does not create clinical depression or anxiety, but can change moods and upset people in the short run, making us feel hopeless, angry, or anxious.

“Research suggests that [the media] exacerbate ongoing feelings [in healthy individuals], and symptoms of those with mental illness, especially those with PTSD.” She highlighted the need for more research in this area, saying, “It’s hard to know whether depressed or anxious people consume media differently.  Are they drawn to the media to confirm their [negative world] views? Are they consuming lots of media because they’re lying at home not doing other things? It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem that we don’t have the answer to.”

Self-Care Tips when Consuming Media

Recognize your triggers.

A practicing psychologist, Dr. McNaughton-Cassill’s recommendations for assessing your media consumption behaviors are rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy. “Determine why and when you’re consuming media.  Am I bored?  Am I looking for attention, excitement, a distraction?”

Once you’ve teased out the underlying cause, set goals for your desired level of media consumption. That may look like limiting yourself to a certain amount of time checking the news daily, or narrowing down multiple news sources into fewer ones to avoid overload.

Media stress can also be improved by identifying which types of media are most conducive to your personal mental well-being. Dr. McNaughton-Cassill shared, “I don’t like visuals too much — especially graphic ones give me nightmares — so I manage better listening to the radio or getting news from written sources.”


Our electronic devices are so ingrained into our daily routine that they often overshadow other aspects of our lives. Dr. McNaughton-Cassill spoke to the importance of including other activities in our day to break up the constant slew of news.

“When we ask college students how much time they spend awake, not engaging with other people or media, it’s less than an hour a day. Combine that with getting less exercise, sleep, and outdoors-time, and we see increased rates of depression. Actively putting these [activities] back in your life could be one way to combat the effects of the constant influx of negative news.”

Intentionally disconnecting from our phones for even an hour a day may be easier said than done, if only due to losing a false sense of control over what’s going on. “The truth is, being disconnected for an hour or two won’t change the outcome of things. It’s not a rational fear; it’s more an expectation of, ‘If I’m in the know, somehow I’ll be more in control’, which is not true.”

Get involved.

If certain news stories leave you feeling helpless, you can channel that feeling into something positive for a relevant cause. While no one person can solve perennial, global problems like terrorism, poverty, animal cruelty, or environmental change, volunteering for organizations related to the issues you care about can be beneficial to your mental health.

“College students could especially benefit from [volunteering], not just because you’re doing something important, but also because it gets you out of your college bubble. If you go out and meet other people who share your concerns, you expand your social circle, which can be a really positive thing.”

Advocating for Better Media Practices

Dr. McNaughton-Cassill recommended Solutions Journalism, a style of journalism that provides consumers not only with a problem, but also with potential solutions. “[Unlike sensationalist reporting,] the message from Solutions Journalism is not, ‘The world is ending and the sky is falling — could this happen to you?’ It’s more of, ‘Here’s the problem, here’s a longer-term story, and here’s a solution.’ The idea is that [consumers] will eventually begin to demand this kind of storytelling.”

Advocating for this kind of reporting on your campus and in your local community could be a step towards more mindful media reporting practices, especially when covering events related to mental health and suicide.

Dr. McNaughton-Cassill also recognized the power of peer-to-peer communication in promoting healthy social media practices, something that Active Minds chapter members know a thing or two about.  “As individuals, we forget the power we have to sway our peers. If we’re reading through our news feed and notice that a friend shared something inappropriate about mental illness, for instance, we can comment on it and correct them without attacking them.”

“You can say something like, ‘I know a lot of people think that, but have you considered this perspective?’ Advocating within your social group really can help.”