December 12, 2023
December 12, 2023

The Hidden Toll of News and Social Media Violence on Your Mental Well-being

Delving into the mental health consequences of ongoing exposure to violence, with practical insights for coping in today's media-driven world.

by
Naomi Angoff Chedd, LMHC, BCBA, LBA
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Trigger Warning: This blog post may contain potentially triggering or distressing content related to violence.

Nothing good ever comes of violence.

                               —Martin Luther

We are all exposed to violence. Even if we do not have firsthand contact—and the large majority of us do not—we all experience it to some degree. We experience it so much, so often, and in so many different ways. We see it during TV news broadcasts, in newspaper headlines, and in our social media feeds. From death and destruction in foreign war zones, to mass shootings throughout our own country, and to violent acts committed right in our own schools and communities, it is difficult to escape the gut-wrenching sounds and images, and they are often impossible to comprehend. We want to look away, but we don’t. Even if we move on with the rest of our day, we carry those images with us. Some of us become numb and desensitized; others become re-traumatized.

One thing is certain: viewing violence, even in the safety of our own homes, has a major and often cumulative effect on our mental and sometimes physical health. Whether or not we have experienced actual violence, we are all its victims. And so are our families, our friends, our coworkers we chat with in the staff room, the commuters we sit next to on the subway, and the students we pass on our way to class. Everyone feels the impact of violence in some way, especially through the endless barrage of videos on social media.

What are the effects? And what can we do about it?

If someone you know experienced violence, whether it be at school, in your place of business, or in a town nearby, you too may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Possible symptoms include staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience, being easily startled, and feeling ongoing negative emotions, such as fear, anger, guilt, or shame. In the worst cases, you may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and experience episodes during which you re-live the physical and psychological effects of the violence. PTSD can interfere with your ability to concentrate and carry out your everyday responsibilities at work, in school, or at home. It can affect important relationships, interfere with sleep, and lead to substance abuse. In the most extreme cases, PTSD can result in suicide. So, it is critically important to acknowledge, recognize, and treat it.

Are people who are more susceptible to stress and anxiety drawn to coverage of violence? Or, does the violent coverage aggravate or activate stress or contribute to an anxiety condition?

There is a great deal of research on how consumers of electronic media are affected by violence. Some studies point to the likelihood that people who are more susceptible to anxiety actually seek out crisis coverage, including violent and disturbing media coverage. Another study included in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) pointed out, “Unlike direct exposure to a collective trauma, which can end when the acute phase of the event is over, media exposure keeps the acute stressor active and alive in one’s mind,” concluding that, “…In so doing, repeated media exposure may contribute to the development of trauma-related disorders by prolonging or exacerbating acute trauma-related symptoms.”1 While the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs National Center for PTSD found that many people are simply unable to look away from violent media coverage, possibly explained by the desire to desensitize, harden, and protect oneself, they cannot answer one of the most important questions: Are people who are more susceptible to stress and anxiety drawn to coverage of violence? Or, does the violent coverage aggravate or activate stress or contribute to an anxiety condition?2

Nobody questions the fact that violence has a tremendous effect on the individual who experiences it firsthand. But it is important to acknowledge the effects of coverage of the many crises unfolding around the world, especially the graphic and violent images of suffering and emotional despair. We now know that those who experience and view violence repeatedly have more medical and mental health problems over time than people who have not experienced direct or second hand violence. Speaking on the difference between the internet/social media and traditional news, Dr. Pam Ramsden of the University of Bradford explained, “social media has enabled violent stories and graphic images to be watched by the public in unedited horrific detail. Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those directly experiencing them may impact our daily lives.”3 It is an immediate problem for many and a public health problem that affects us all.

Are there solutions?

We cannot solve the world’s political problems, nor can we anticipate and stop every violent act that takes place in our communities. But there are things we can learn and action we can take to protect ourselves from the endless torrent of media coverage around these events:

  • Rather than repeatedly watching dramatic footage of war and other atrocities, find out the details of specific events and follow the developments via a few trusted news sources. This way, you get the facts rather than only the disturbing images that may become etched deeply in your mind and could result in trauma.
  • Talk about what you are seeing and hearing and how you are feeling with trusted friends, family, colleagues, teachers and classmates—people with whom you can have intelligent, rational discussions, even if you don’t agree on everything.
  • Remember that violence is not always visual. It is also often embedded in the language that is used—by people you know and by politicians—to describe people, perhaps even your friends and neighbors, who may not be of the same race, religion, nationality, gender, or political party. This language is meant to stir up emotions, often in destructive ways. Pay attention to what you hear and what you see—and question it.
  • Some colleges and universities offer news literacy classes. These are more important than ever before. They can help you become a more informed and analytical consumer of balanced news rather than sensationalism.
  • Keep a close eye on what your children are watching and how much time they spend online. Children imitate what they see. Ask them about it. Find out what they are thinking and how they are feeling.
  • Turn off the TV! Power down your computer! You don’t have to watch. While it’s important to know what is happening in the world, you are not required to watch endless loops of explosions, collapsing buildings, or injured and dying people.
After a tragedy has taken place, people often gather to share their sadness and feelings of loss. There is positive power in human contact.
  • Check in with your own reactions. Are you losing sleep? Is your appetite disturbed? Are you replaying events and images over and over in your mind? Do you feel more tense, sadder, or angrier than usual? These may be indications of a variety of disturbances in your life, including overexposure to violence. In which case, set limits for yourself. You don’t need to check your social media feed every five minutes or read every “Breaking News” notification in your email.
  • Write about or record your own feelings. This can help you better understand and cope with your own emotions and even gain new insights.
  • Find ways to help others in need. This may help soothe your own emotions and channel them in positive ways. Contribute time or money to causes that are important to you or to candidates who support your positions. Every act of support, kindness, and generosity helps.
  • Be sure to engage in self-care. Engage in individual practices, like relaxation and exercise, as well as group and family rituals. Caring for your own mind and body and sharing emotions in healthy, respectful ways can help heal your psychological wounds. After a tragedy has taken place, people often gather to share their sadness and feelings of loss. There is positive power in human contact.
  • If you are finding the violence overwhelming, talking to a therapist who specializes in treating the effects of violence, trauma, or grief may help. If you have never sought professional support before, don’t hesitate to ask for help now. In a world where violence can feel overwhelming, seeking professional help isn't a sign of weakness; it's a courageous step toward healing and reclaiming your well-being. Licensed professionals can provide valuable guidance, support, and tools to navigate the complexities of these times, helping you process emotions, develop coping strategies, and find ways to prioritize your safety and mental health. Remember, reaching out for help is a strength that can empower you to face the challenges of today's world with resilience and courage.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and it may also be a source of trauma, especially if you are exposed to it over and over and over, with no editorial comment or explanation, no guidance, no resolution, and no way to understand the context. In addition to all the fun, entertainment, and the many social connections you can forge via social media, beware of the often misleading and very real negative effects it can have on your mental health.

References

  1. Holman, E. Alison, et al. “Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 1, 9 Dec. 2013, pp. 93–98, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1316265110.
  2. “Va.Gov: Veterans Affairs.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 15 Aug. 2013, www.ptsd.va.gov/.
  3. “Viewing Violent News on Social Media Can Cause Trauma.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 6 May 2015, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150506164240.htm.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to Counslr, Inc., its partners, its employees, or any other mental health professionals Counslr employs. You should review this information and any questions regarding your specific circumstances with a medical professional. The content provided here is for informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as counseling, therapy, or professional medical advice.

December 12, 2023
December 12, 2023

The Hidden Toll of News and Social Media Violence on Your Mental Well-being

by
Naomi Angoff Chedd, LMHC, BCBA, LBA

Type your email to download

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Trigger Warning: This blog post may contain potentially triggering or distressing content related to violence.

Nothing good ever comes of violence.

                               —Martin Luther

We are all exposed to violence. Even if we do not have firsthand contact—and the large majority of us do not—we all experience it to some degree. We experience it so much, so often, and in so many different ways. We see it during TV news broadcasts, in newspaper headlines, and in our social media feeds. From death and destruction in foreign war zones, to mass shootings throughout our own country, and to violent acts committed right in our own schools and communities, it is difficult to escape the gut-wrenching sounds and images, and they are often impossible to comprehend. We want to look away, but we don’t. Even if we move on with the rest of our day, we carry those images with us. Some of us become numb and desensitized; others become re-traumatized.

One thing is certain: viewing violence, even in the safety of our own homes, has a major and often cumulative effect on our mental and sometimes physical health. Whether or not we have experienced actual violence, we are all its victims. And so are our families, our friends, our coworkers we chat with in the staff room, the commuters we sit next to on the subway, and the students we pass on our way to class. Everyone feels the impact of violence in some way, especially through the endless barrage of videos on social media.

What are the effects? And what can we do about it?

If someone you know experienced violence, whether it be at school, in your place of business, or in a town nearby, you too may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Possible symptoms include staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience, being easily startled, and feeling ongoing negative emotions, such as fear, anger, guilt, or shame. In the worst cases, you may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and experience episodes during which you re-live the physical and psychological effects of the violence. PTSD can interfere with your ability to concentrate and carry out your everyday responsibilities at work, in school, or at home. It can affect important relationships, interfere with sleep, and lead to substance abuse. In the most extreme cases, PTSD can result in suicide. So, it is critically important to acknowledge, recognize, and treat it.

Are people who are more susceptible to stress and anxiety drawn to coverage of violence? Or, does the violent coverage aggravate or activate stress or contribute to an anxiety condition?

There is a great deal of research on how consumers of electronic media are affected by violence. Some studies point to the likelihood that people who are more susceptible to anxiety actually seek out crisis coverage, including violent and disturbing media coverage. Another study included in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) pointed out, “Unlike direct exposure to a collective trauma, which can end when the acute phase of the event is over, media exposure keeps the acute stressor active and alive in one’s mind,” concluding that, “…In so doing, repeated media exposure may contribute to the development of trauma-related disorders by prolonging or exacerbating acute trauma-related symptoms.”1 While the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs National Center for PTSD found that many people are simply unable to look away from violent media coverage, possibly explained by the desire to desensitize, harden, and protect oneself, they cannot answer one of the most important questions: Are people who are more susceptible to stress and anxiety drawn to coverage of violence? Or, does the violent coverage aggravate or activate stress or contribute to an anxiety condition?2

Nobody questions the fact that violence has a tremendous effect on the individual who experiences it firsthand. But it is important to acknowledge the effects of coverage of the many crises unfolding around the world, especially the graphic and violent images of suffering and emotional despair. We now know that those who experience and view violence repeatedly have more medical and mental health problems over time than people who have not experienced direct or second hand violence. Speaking on the difference between the internet/social media and traditional news, Dr. Pam Ramsden of the University of Bradford explained, “social media has enabled violent stories and graphic images to be watched by the public in unedited horrific detail. Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those directly experiencing them may impact our daily lives.”3 It is an immediate problem for many and a public health problem that affects us all.

Are there solutions?

We cannot solve the world’s political problems, nor can we anticipate and stop every violent act that takes place in our communities. But there are things we can learn and action we can take to protect ourselves from the endless torrent of media coverage around these events:

  • Rather than repeatedly watching dramatic footage of war and other atrocities, find out the details of specific events and follow the developments via a few trusted news sources. This way, you get the facts rather than only the disturbing images that may become etched deeply in your mind and could result in trauma.
  • Talk about what you are seeing and hearing and how you are feeling with trusted friends, family, colleagues, teachers and classmates—people with whom you can have intelligent, rational discussions, even if you don’t agree on everything.
  • Remember that violence is not always visual. It is also often embedded in the language that is used—by people you know and by politicians—to describe people, perhaps even your friends and neighbors, who may not be of the same race, religion, nationality, gender, or political party. This language is meant to stir up emotions, often in destructive ways. Pay attention to what you hear and what you see—and question it.
  • Some colleges and universities offer news literacy classes. These are more important than ever before. They can help you become a more informed and analytical consumer of balanced news rather than sensationalism.
  • Keep a close eye on what your children are watching and how much time they spend online. Children imitate what they see. Ask them about it. Find out what they are thinking and how they are feeling.
  • Turn off the TV! Power down your computer! You don’t have to watch. While it’s important to know what is happening in the world, you are not required to watch endless loops of explosions, collapsing buildings, or injured and dying people.
After a tragedy has taken place, people often gather to share their sadness and feelings of loss. There is positive power in human contact.
  • Check in with your own reactions. Are you losing sleep? Is your appetite disturbed? Are you replaying events and images over and over in your mind? Do you feel more tense, sadder, or angrier than usual? These may be indications of a variety of disturbances in your life, including overexposure to violence. In which case, set limits for yourself. You don’t need to check your social media feed every five minutes or read every “Breaking News” notification in your email.
  • Write about or record your own feelings. This can help you better understand and cope with your own emotions and even gain new insights.
  • Find ways to help others in need. This may help soothe your own emotions and channel them in positive ways. Contribute time or money to causes that are important to you or to candidates who support your positions. Every act of support, kindness, and generosity helps.
  • Be sure to engage in self-care. Engage in individual practices, like relaxation and exercise, as well as group and family rituals. Caring for your own mind and body and sharing emotions in healthy, respectful ways can help heal your psychological wounds. After a tragedy has taken place, people often gather to share their sadness and feelings of loss. There is positive power in human contact.
  • If you are finding the violence overwhelming, talking to a therapist who specializes in treating the effects of violence, trauma, or grief may help. If you have never sought professional support before, don’t hesitate to ask for help now. In a world where violence can feel overwhelming, seeking professional help isn't a sign of weakness; it's a courageous step toward healing and reclaiming your well-being. Licensed professionals can provide valuable guidance, support, and tools to navigate the complexities of these times, helping you process emotions, develop coping strategies, and find ways to prioritize your safety and mental health. Remember, reaching out for help is a strength that can empower you to face the challenges of today's world with resilience and courage.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and it may also be a source of trauma, especially if you are exposed to it over and over and over, with no editorial comment or explanation, no guidance, no resolution, and no way to understand the context. In addition to all the fun, entertainment, and the many social connections you can forge via social media, beware of the often misleading and very real negative effects it can have on your mental health.

References

  1. Holman, E. Alison, et al. “Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 1, 9 Dec. 2013, pp. 93–98, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1316265110.
  2. “Va.Gov: Veterans Affairs.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 15 Aug. 2013, www.ptsd.va.gov/.
  3. “Viewing Violent News on Social Media Can Cause Trauma.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 6 May 2015, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150506164240.htm.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to Counslr, Inc., its partners, its employees, or any other mental health professionals Counslr employs. You should review this information and any questions regarding your specific circumstances with a medical professional. The content provided here is for informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as counseling, therapy, or professional medical advice.

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