Coping with the Stress of Recent News and Social Media

Amid headlines of violence, injustice, and economic uncertainty, there are ways families can help teens process current events in a health-affirming way.

on April 30, 2024

If the news stresses you out, you’re not alone. A recent report by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that 73% of U.S. Americans feel overwhelmed by the number of global crises oft-covered in the media. The APA’s finding joins growing evidence that links distressing news and media overconsumption to higher rates of anxiety and depression.

While delving deeper into the connection between news and mental health, I was surprised to learn that more than half of U.S. adults get their news via social media. That’s cause for concern, given the amount of sensationalized content on our feeds and algorithms that leave us wanting more. And when the average adult spends over two hours daily on their accounts, it’s never been harder to break away from what’s happening today.

Teens, especially, are in precarious spot. Social media is more than a hobby for Gen Zers; it’s a fundamental part of their lives. It shapes their relationships, worldviews, and identities. They’re even choosing TikTok over Google in their everyday searches! Parents and parental figures can do what they can to reduce exposure to harmful stories, though some content will always make its way through.

Worrying about how media affects the mental health of teens is understandable. But amid headlines of violence, injustice, and economic uncertainty, there are ways families can help teens process current events in a health-affirming way.

Engage in open dialogue

The topics that dominate our news cycle are complex. Teens may find themselves with questions about what they see and struggle to figure out how they should feel. Parents and parental figures can add context and offer support in a non-judgmental, trusting manner.

One idea is to invite the teen in your life to join you in watching the evening news. Afterward, carry on a discussion with them on what you’ve just seen to help register the information. The right guidance will give teens the confidence to navigate the information and reach their own conclusions. Also, be sure to encourage them to access only reputable media outlets and challenge them to question anything that may seem deceptive.

We can also collaborate with teens to reframe harmful perspectives. For example, if we overhear them express hopelessness in response to a breaking news story, we can remind them of a time when our community overcame a similar challenge in the past. Another take can lead to a more balanced viewpoint.

Build up their optimism with respect

Optimism can be a powerful defense when we face upsetting events. Research suggests that optimistic people also tend to be more resilient. We can help teens cultivate a sense of optimism by asking them to spend time each day reflecting on what makes them grateful. Practicing gratitude reflection from a young age will lead to benefits that reverberate throughout life (though it’s never too late for anyone to get into the habit!)

Of course, positive thinking isn’t always the solution. In fact, pressuring teens to resist how they feel may cause confusion, shame, or guilt. As a parent or parental figure, the most important message we can send to teens is one of validation. Then, when the time is right, we can drop a thought that provides a little more clarity and a lot more assurance.

Moderate and recuperate

What do teens tend to do the moment they have some time to themselves? Reach for their phones and open their favorite apps. We see it all the time, and it’s a problem; impulsive and aimless scrolling worsens mental health.

Shame and blame won’t help. A much healthier option is to subtly encourage teens to take some time away from their screens. Invite them to join you for an activity that you enjoy together. Brainstorm and recommend a new hobby that meets their interests. Remind them of an activity they love to do when they’re not on their phones. Also, consider disconnecting yourself for a little while to set a good example (you’ll benefit from the time away, as well!)

Remember, the goal isn’t to inhibit access to the news but to guide teens to think about it in a way that doesn’t compromise their mental wellness or hope for a better future. As I tell my clients, “it’s not what happens to you, but how you respond.” Parents and parental figures willing to work alongside their teens to adopt that very same perspective will inspire an informed and empowered soon-to-be young adult.