Pictures and video, sometimes ugly and chilling, are sent from phones before reporters or even first responders can arrive. It all goes viral in a matter of minutes. Barely 30 minutes after that story is broken the next one is out. Sometimes, it is all too much to take in.
Dr Sophie Moagi, a clinical psychologist in Gaborone says behind those “likes” lurks a huge psychological blitz. “Our flight or freeze stress response gets activated when we look at bad news, whether we are aware of it or not. Repetition of bad news and images does damage to us through vicarious trauma. Much like a trauma survivor who has become hyper-vigilant and scans the world for danger, a person who scrolls through such news is also looking for negative events. When we are doom-scrolling, our brains begin processing the world as an unsafe place, which is one of many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It can cause us to be irritable, territorial, shut down or shut others out ― and all of these are also trauma responses. Social media can contribute to making humans less empathetic toward each other thanks to desensitization and anonymity. People make comments online they would never say in front of someone. If they do this continually, they will begin to become less empathetic and compassionate in real life.”
Disturbing headlines aren’t new ― but thanks to social media, we are more exposed to them than ever. From uninterrupted streaming of updates on Russia and Ukraine to videos of police mistreating Black and brown people to upsetting updates about COVID-19, we are constantly bombarded with doom. Social media provides the perfect space for any and everyone to share the latest information (and misinformation), as well as analysis. There is no break. Before social media and the internet, a violent incident like a terror attack would move us to get together in person to talk about it – and that still happens. For some kinds of connections and information, social media is replacing other channels such as a phone call or running out to buy a newspaper or watching the 7 o’clock news. In the last few years it has become a standard part of culture for mass shows of grief and solidarity to accompany global tragedies. Social media has become a first line of emotional response. Still, we seem to be a long way from accepting online expression when it comes to serious contexts such as grieving. This is perhaps as much to do with people’s perceptions of what counts as an appropriate reaction to death more generally, rather than anything specific about social media. People are still unsure whether it is best to conceal their reactions to death and cope with them privately, away from everyday activities. Or whether to make them visible, to share our emotional responses and incorporate the fact of death and grieving as a part of everyday life.
Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “The amount of media someone consumes and how graphic that content is influences its effects on mental health. For example with the ongoing situation between Russia and Ukraine we see disturbing photos and videos fill the screens of people and pets huddled in shelters, and Ukrainian citizens tearfully calling their loved ones to say goodbye, It is a lot to process. That stream of information is powerful: it forces people to pay attention and gives them a window into the experiences of people in Ukraine. But tracking up-to-the-minute developments can come at a cost. Research suggests that news coverage of traumatic events can affect viewers’ mental health—and with footage and photos from Ukraine flooding social media and misinformation spreading rampantly, that has implications for public health.”
Social media can be a double-edged sword when it comes to understanding tragedy or humanitarian crises. While these platforms can help people to better understand issues plaguing others and prompt them to adopt behaviour and advocate for policy solutions that bring positive change, there is also the issue of becoming impervious to tragedy because people see so much of it. Social media can desensitize the masses to tragedies by presenting them with too much information, information taken out of context, misinformation or disinformation (information designed to deceive). Since people don’t always have enough time to digest one story before another breaks, they can sometimes end up feeling emotionally numb, helpless and immobile. They have become desensitized to situations that in other times would seem outrageous or unimaginable. Constant access to social media and the news plays into this by continuing to provide access to information to the point where it no longer becomes shocking, and also by taking people’s attention away with the next crisis.