How Seeing War and Disaster Unfold in Real-Time Across Social Media Impacts Our Mental Health

mental health online violence content

In case you hadn’t noticed, the world has been going through some stuff lately. It’s probably not even worth summing up here because there’s frankly too much happening and the vast majority of it seems bad. You know what I’m talking about.

Keeping up to date on the news and staying informed is important, but when it comes at the cost of consuming horrifying and traumatising content on a daily basis, you have to wonder how good any of this is for us and what the point of looking at it is. Feelings of helplessness are apt.

Australia, unlike many other nations, has fairly strong filters and social standards as to what kind of content can and cannot be shown by new organisations. In other countries though, like much of South America and South-East Asia, when there’s a traffic accident or a murder, viewers aren’t spared the grisly close-ups.

Social media has however circumvented a lot of those barriers and brought graphic footage and images straight to our eyeballs. This isn’t new. In the early days, the internet was packed with truly unsettling content before governments or institutions even began to understand it. Much of that darkness still persists online, hidden away in the darker corners, but occasionally, it breaks free.

Just a few weeks ago, 35-year-old diving instructor Simon Nellist was attacked and killed by a Great White Shark off Little Bay headland, Sydney’s first shark fatality in almost 60 years.

As with everything shocking and extraordinary these days, that attack was filmed and spread around on social media before most people even knew what had happened. Our informative, funny, or commerce-ridden social media feeds were briefly interrupted with footage of a man being torn apart by an apex predator, almost in real-time.

Jocelyn Brewer is a psychologist who specialises in the impact of digital media on mental health. She told The Latch that it’s the videos we watch by accident that can have the most psychological impact, “rather than seeking out the new viral thing that is doing the rounds — in which case you probably know what is in it and are primed for the content.”

Cut to a few weeks later and you could watch live footage of Ukrainian cities being bombed by Russian artillery. This has turned into a ceaseless stream of real-world violence as the attack continues. While it feels wrong to look away and ignore what is happening to these people, it feels equally wrong to watch. This is not even to mention all the incidents of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, or natural disasters that are bouncing around the world on a daily basis. Splice this content with some videos of cute animals or ads about superannuation funds and your social media feed starts to feel almost psychotic.

You have to wonder what kind of impact that has. Brewer said that with the increased volume of information we consume on a daily basis, “it’s almost like we are not as cognizant and present to the humans in the stories and scenes”.

“That said, we are also now much more aware of the issues, and the viewpoints — and their potential to be misinformation — from multiple perspectives,” she added.

Society has long worried over the impact of people, particularly young people, consuming violent content, like video games or films, although the evidence for this is shaky at best. When it comes to actual violence though, the evidence is a little more clear-cut.

One 2015 study found that watching violent content on social media can cause symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder in some people. A 2019 study found similarly that media coverage of mass violence can cause distress in people who are exposed to it. What’s more, that anxiety can then drive people to consume more trauma-related media in the future, creating a vicious cycle.

“It’s important that the public should be aware of the consequences of exposure to violence,” lead researcher Professor Roxane Cohen Silver has said. “There’s very little benefit to consuming this type of media and it appears that it can have very negative effects”.

Brewer however argues that the impact of such content depends on a number of contextual factors, including “age, gender and the level of repetition and context the exposure occurs in.”

“Younger people might have difficulty processing what they see and it might leave a ‘mental imprint’ on people if they are caught unaware and feel somewhat ‘hijacked’ by the material.”

“Some people may have an experience that leads to stress after the event — like in post-traumatic stress disorder — and others might use that as an opportunity for growth. How we are supported to make sense of and process the information or event is key.”

Our brains make and enhance memories by going over new information again and again, imprinting what we’ve just learned or what new experience we’ve just had. If that experience is traumatic, it can imprint deeply, with problematic consequences down the line. Studies have shown however that interrupting that process of repetition can lessen the impact of trauma after the event. Playing the game Tetris after you’ve seen or experienced something disturbing appears to prevent the full impact of that experience from taking hold.

Perhaps something similar happens when we see disturbing content on social media and then scroll past it to the next puppy video. In fact, this is largely the premise behind the popular subreddit, Eye Bleach, a group set up to share exceedingly cute images designed to ‘bleach’ the memory of whatever horrible thing you’ve just seen — almost certainly also on Reddit.

“Witnessing something traumatic — an accident or an act of violence — is quite different in situ or person versus online where you can keep scrolling,” Brewer notes.

Perhaps it’s not as bad as we might think then, provided we don’t dwell on it.

However, if the constant barrage of horror that has been filling our little digital screens for the past few years has got you down, it could be because humans have a limited capacity to manage difficult emotions, and being hit constantly wears that down.

Brewer adds that “we can be more easily upset by material, as our coping skills and ‘emotional battery’ for managing complex emotions is very low”.

As with anything digital and mental health-related, the best advice is to take a break and reassess your relationship with digital information and social media.

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