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Watching Netflix’s The Social Dilemma was interesting and disturbing. It was interesting to see how it was constructed but disturbing to see that many of the psychological techniques the documentary vilified were used by the producers to tell their own story. As a persuasive piece of media, it is very successful: Part documentary, part drama, it hits all the anxiety triggers of the last few years. The content is compelling and frightening — and also one-sided. The issues raised are serious and important, but not new. The call to action is to put down your smartphone and back away, not slowly but post-haste. …


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Using entertainment for comfort, escape, and positivity can be an important antidote to COVID stress and Zoom fatigue. Holiday movies are a reliable and popular choice. Media companies have noticed, and some have upped their investment in holiday “feel good” movies. For example, according to the LA Times, Mar Visa entertainment has gone from investing about 10% of its development funds in holiday movies to about 50%. Why? Holiday movies make us happy.

Psychologists talk about happiness by distinguishing between two types: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic happiness is what we feel from sensations of pleasure and enjoyment. It tends to be more transitory, like eating chocolate. Eudaimonic happiness comes from experiences that create a sense of meaning and purpose and tends to be with us longer. …


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Zoom is so prevalent that “Zoom” is now synonymous with video conferencing. The use of Zoom and other digital communications tools has skyrocketed given the number of people working and living in relative isolation due to COVID precautions and lockdowns. So many of us are Zooming (yes, it’s now a verb, too) that we are experiencing a new form of burnout: Zoom Fatigue. Let’s face it. Zooming can be exhausting — and for good reasons.

The numbers are impressive from a business perspective, but a bit frightening from a psychological one. By June 2020, Zoom’s subscriptions had increased by 350% over the previous year. The number of people showing up in meetings went from 10 million to over 300 million during the same period. (That’s DAILY.) …


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As the election draws near, kids of politicians are making news by speaking up to discourage voters from supporting their parents. ( See Beth Greenfield’s article.) Typical teenage rebellion? That’s far too simplistic. A combination of a major developmental task, prominent (and conservative) parents, and the amplification effect of digital media make a perfect storm for what psychologists would call differentiation and the parents under attack would call disrespect or rebellion.

However you choose to label it, differentiating from the nuclear family is a key developmental task for all teenagers and young adults. Everyone needs to figure out who they are and their place in the world in order to be successful adults. This exploration can lead to a lot of experimentation with people, ideas, and actions. This leads to a series of behaviors that may be perceived by others as risky, rebellious or foolish, such as engaging in forbidden behaviors, wearing the “right” clothes to signal peer affiliation, or outright rebellion. The push-back behaviors tend to be in proportion to the psychological ‘room’ and encouragement that a young person receives as they go through this task. No room = more pushback (e. g. Thompson et al., …


Continually checking your cellphone, scrolling news stories or experiencing news cycle fatigue? Sadly, it is impossible to distinguish election-anxiety behaviors like those from COVID-anxiety behaviors when it comes to media use. Both types of anxiety have the same damaging stress responses in your body but they can have very different worries and triggers. Triggers are not the cause of anxiety, but they can activate and intensify it. You can learn how to identify triggers and develop coping strategies that will help manage your election anxiety.

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Anxiety disorders were already common before COVID. Now, the combination of COVID and a hostile political environment fill the news, blogs, and social media platforms. It’s hard to get away and there is more than enough anxiety to go around. People are more reactive and irritable, and less tolerant. Understanding why this is going on, identifying your emotional reactions to the information sources, and recognizing your biggest triggers can help you manage some of the stress and feel more in control. But know this: You are NOT alone. A recent American Psychological Association poll showed that 68% of American adults say the 2020 president election is a major source of stress. …


Looking to date? Polarization is at an all-time high, increasing the importance of political affiliation in potential mates. Before you swipe left, however, remember that labels do not always predict beliefs or values.

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While we are more sensitive to problems with labels — perhaps now more than ever —we are more likely to react emotionally based on bias, stereotypes and experinces. The increasingly contentious and politicized environment can’t help but change how we react to labels and how we publicly align with issues, especially when it comes to seeking relationships.

When issues lose their complexity and become binary and emotional, it changes the meaning and impact of a potential partner’s political affiliation. In this climate, we broadcast and align as much for reassurance and affiliation as anything else. …


It used to be that sitcoms were 30 minutes and dramas were an hour (including commercial breaks). However, there has been a trend toward shorter form 20–30-minute dramatic programming. From a practical perspective, shorter programming allows for a greater breadth of consumption. It’s pretty clear that the quantity of media choices has grown, but the number of hours in a day has stayed the same. But the real issues aren’t the traditional constraints. We are COVID-exhausted. Attention takes energy.

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The avowed enthusiasm for programs that demand a shorter investment of time raises questions about our stress level and the cognitive energy that we can or want to expend on focused attention. You’d think during a period of sheltering at home and varying degrees of social distancing, the last thing we’d be worried about is the length of a program. …


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According to Miriam Webster, doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms that describe continuous scrolling or surfing through negative news, even when it is depressing, demoralizing, distressing, or painful. Many people have found themselves continuously reading bad news about COVID-19 or the protests and police violence without the ability to stop or step back.

This problem is a result of how the human brain is wired. Our brains instinctively pay attention to any potentially dangerous situation as part of the biological imperative of survival. Our brains are designed to constantly scan the horizon for potential threats. …


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The pandemic, politics, and social protests make this a particularly volatile time–emotions are on edge and tension is high. This is a time when we are all vulnerable to embracing stories based on our emotions and fears–stories that confirm our beliefs and rationalize our behavior. When it comes to stories, we are all prisoners of our neural structures. Recognizing the innate power of storytelling and our instinctive response is an essential defensive skill in a chaotic and contentious environment when we’re most in need of certainty and reassurance. Otherwise, we are sitting ducks for manipulation.

Humans have always been storytellers. Stories have been delivered across different media throughout recorded history since the Cro-Magnon figured out that mineral pigments like iron oxide and black manganese could be applied to the sides of rocks and caves. Stories chronicle life, communicate information and social norms, entertain, inspire, and persuade. …


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The voice of reason is entirely missing when stories activate fight or flight. Anything that is perceived as an attack on beliefs, identity or affiliation shuts down cognitive processes and makes collaboration difficult, if not impossible. Narratives reveal core values that have to be addressed for both groups for compromise to be achieved and conflict resolved. There is no “changing the other guy’s mind” when the fundamental worldview is so different. This is true in politics, business negotiations, consume behavior and interpersonal relationships. The solution: Deconstruct the competing narratives to identify the underlying beliefs. The ‘Face Mask Culture War’ isn’t about face masks at all. …

About

Dr. Pamela Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge is a media psychologist, prof, writer, researcher & consultant, looking for the ‘why’ that drives media consumption, meaning & impact.

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