Understanding the importance of media psychology

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated February 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

“The media” is a term that may be used in a wide range of contexts to describe a wide range of technologies, methods of communication, and platforms for distributing information. As media, communications, and related technologies have evolved, a relatively new area of study has emerged to better understand and address the media as it relates to human behavior. This field is known as “media psychology.” 

Since the late 1900s, media psychology has continued to develop as an intersection of various disciplines. Because media and media technology are considered a widespread part of modern life, understanding the field may be essential for building an awareness of the mechanisms and implications of modern media for groups and individuals.

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What is media psychology? 

One potential challenge of defining media psychology is that the field may deal with various topics, ranging from human psychology and emotions to the implications of interactive technology and the ways it may influence behavior. 

According to the American Psychological Association, “Media psychology focuses on the psychology behind media and technology use and impact.” The forms of technology that media psychology may explore include, but are not limited to:

  • Print media, such as magazines and newspapers
  • The arts
  • Interactive media
  • Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)
  • Mass media, such as radio, TV, and film
  • Social media
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) 

As explained by the APA, media psychologists may include mental health specialists, researchers, educators, and consultants, among others. Understanding the psychology of media may also be a crucial consideration for technology developers, marketers, political figures, news distributors, and professionals in other fields. 

How did media psychology emerge? 

The study of media, technology, and communications related to human behavior has been happening to various degrees since the early 1900s, with emerging technologies like the radio and television drawing different forms of research over time. Fields like marketing and public relations may have existed in certain forms since before the 20th Century, focusing on the effects of communications on how people behave. Given the wide variation of professions, technologies, and areas of study that the field may encompass, media psychology research has existed for at least a century. 

However, “media psychology,” as it’s understood and defined today, is considered to have emerged with the foundation of the American Psychological Association’s Division 46: The Society for Media Psychology and Technology. Formed in 1986, this branch of the APA has several areas of focus, including studying the impact of media technology on behavior, promoting technological literacy and the ethical use of media, and understanding the impacts of technology on mental illness.

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The importance of media psychology in professional fields

As media and the ways people use it to communicate evolve, the media psychology field may also continue to evolve. However, reviewing several areas of work where knowledge of media psychology has been proposed as a critical factor can be beneficial. 

A 1998 study from the APA’s Division 46 identified several areas of media-related work requiring a substantial understanding of psychology, including: 

  • Psychologists working in media (for example, as featured experts, program hosts, writers, or journalists)
  • Psychologists acting as consultants for media companies (for example, helping media personalities manage stage fright)
  • Those involved in developing media standards (content guidelines, for example)
  • Professionals working to advance media technologies 
  • Commercial professionals, such as marketers
  • Professionals studying the psychological or social effects of media

These fields, among others, were cited in the study as requiring an understanding of how psychology relates to the media. Psychological research is constantly evolving, so older sources may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

Other fields that may require an understanding of media psychology can include, but are not limited to:

  • Law enforcement professionals
  • Educators
  • Those working in social media
  • User experience and user interface designers
  • Those working at nonprofits or in fundraising

These professions, among others, may illustrate the potential relevance of media psychology in a wide range of contexts. 

Mental health considerations and media 

Understanding how the media can drive behavior, reactions, and emotions may also be relevant to mental health. The rapid advancement of technologies like social media, generative AI, and virtual reality may require ongoing research to understand their impacts on well-being. 

However, research has identified potential links between mental health and how media is presented and consumed. For instance, a 2022 study found an association between levels of exposure to COVID-19-related news via social media and increased symptoms of depression and PTSD. In addition, a 2017 study found a potential link between social media use among young adults and perceived social isolation. 

Furthermore, a 2022 study found an association between reduced mental and physical well-being and “problematic news consumption.” While media psychology research about mental health continues to evolve, studies like these may illustrate how the media can impact well-being. 

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Support options 

Speaking with a counselor may be helpful for those experiencing distressing symptoms, concerns about the media and mental health, or a desire to better understand media psychology. Therapy can provide a safe space to explore the media as it relates to mental health, develop strategies for well-being, or work toward a healthier relationship with technology. 

However, for those experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it may not be easy to leave the house and commute to a face-to-face therapy appointment. Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp may offer an alternative, allowing clients to attend counseling sessions from wherever is most convenient. The option to send messages to a therapist at any time may also be helpful for those in need of support outside of scheduled therapy sessions. 

Research has found that online therapy may be as effective as in-person therapy for treating mental illnesses related to media consumption, such as depression and anxiety. For example, a study from 2017 found that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) was an effective and cost-effective form of treatment for mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and PTSD.  

Takeaway

Media psychology refers to a field that encompasses the ways humans use, interact with, and are influenced by different forms of media. It may be relevant to a wide range of professions, such as media professionals, educators, social media workers, and marketers.  

The field of media psychology may continue to evolve in response to changing forms of media (such as social media and AI), with research ongoing into the possible mental health implications of media consumption. If you have questions or concerns about the media regarding mental health, consider contacting a therapist for further guidance and support.

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