Social Media Is Traumatizing Us More Than We Realize

Disturbing headlines aren’t new ― but thanks to social media, we’re more exposed to them than ever.

From uninterrupted streaming of the Capitol riot in Washington, D.C., to videos of police mistreating Black and brown people to updates about the rising COVID-19 death toll, we’re 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’s no break.

On balance, we think we can handle it because we’re not breaking down every time we spot another tragedy in our news feed. But is this actually a sign we’re OK or is it really an indication that we’re hurting more than we realize?

According to experts, consuming this constant stream of negative information can be traumatic.

Katie Day Good, an assistant professor of strategic communication at Miami University and the author of “Bring the World to the Child: Technologies of Global Citizenship in American Education,” said social media can be a double-edged sword when it comes to understanding tragedy or humanitarian crises. While these platforms can help us to better understand issues plaguing others and “prompt us to adopt behaviors and advocate for policy solutions that bring positive change,” there is also the issue of becoming impervious to tragedy because we see so much of it, she explained.

“Social media can desensitize us to tragedies by presenting us with too much information, information taken out of context, misinformation or disinformation (information designed to deceive),” she said.

And since we don’t always have enough time to digest one story before another breaks, we can sometimes end up feeling emotionally numb, helpless and immobile. This typically happens when our survival mechanisms are triggered. Grace Dowd, an Austin, Texas-based psychotherapist, compares this phenomenon to the “boiling frog” fable.

“If you want to boil a frog, you do not put it straight into a boiling pot of water because it will jump out. But if you put the frog in a pot of water and slowly raise the temperature, the frog will stay in the pot because it fails to notice the gradual change over time,” she said.

“We have become desensitized to situations that in other times would seem outrageous or unimaginable,” she continued. “Our 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 our attention away with the next crisis.”

More insidious ways our current social media climate affects us

It’s not just desensitization that’s cause for concern. There are a handful of other ways this particular moment in social media can impact us. Here’s how:

Constant doomscrolling can rewire our nervous system.

According to Mary Joye, a licensed mental health counselor and certified trauma professional in Florida, our fight, flight or freeze stress response gets activated when we look at bad news, whether we’re aware of it or not. Then, our system “releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol,” Joye said.

And the more we engage in this cycle, the more it hurts us ― sometimes even to the point where our bodies and brains immediately have a reaction as soon as we log on.

“Repetition of [bad news and images] does damage to us through vicarious trauma,” Joye said. “Much like a trauma survivor who has become hypervigilant and scans the world for danger, the doomscroller is also looking for negative events.”

When we’re doomscrolling, our brains begin processing the world as “an unsafe place, which is one of many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Joye explained. “It can cause us to be irritable, territorial, shut down or shut others out ― and all of these are also trauma responses.”

It may lead to less empathy for others.

Joye said that 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,” Joye said.

Excessive doomscrolling can lead to mood swings, loss of appetite and even cardiovascular issues.

According to Sam Nabil, CEO and lead therapist for Naya Clinics, too much exposure to gloomy, hateful and bleak content can lead to the elevation of cortisol levels in the body, which will result in a downward shift in your mood.

This also “contributes to mental health conditions, loss of appetite, sleep issues, and increases your risk of hypertension and developing other cardiovascular disease.”

Prolonged social media use can cause mental and physical health effects we may not even notice right away.

Prolonged social media use can cause mental and physical health effects we may not even notice right away.

How to reduce your doom consumption while still staying informed

If you’re looking to curb your social media usage, there are a few things you can do. But first, you need to acknowledge there’s an issue.

“Awareness is always the first step to changing a behavior,” said Lin Sternlicht, a therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist based in New York City. “An individual must become aware of the negative impact that doomscrolling is having on their life, and then have a desire to want to change their habit.”

Here’s how to make that change without missing out on crucial current events:

Create limits for yourself.

“We need to monitor our online time and set clear boundaries as to when and how long we are accessing news,” said Steven Crawford, the medical director at Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center in Baltimore. “Historically, there were traditional news broadcasts that were time-limited. Now there is an endless barrage of news available anytime, anywhere. It is left to us to establish these boundaries on our own, which can be particularly difficult during a pandemic and quarantine when it often seems there is not much else to do but sit at home and scroll.”

Scroll for good news.

Crawford suggested filling your social media feed with good news or stories that will give your brain a break from the doom and gloom.

“If it doesn’t make you feel good, ask yourself why you want to continue to be exposed to it,” Sternlicht said. “If staying informed is your main concern, find a news source outside of social media that tends to inform you of the news you want to be updated on that is not overtly toxic.”

Be intentional about checking social media.

“Pay attention to when you are checking for updates out of boredom, impulse, stress or to relieve some negative emotion,” Sternlicht said. “Find healthier ways to fill up idle time and cope with negative thoughts and feelings such as by engaging in self-care through exercise, eating well, meditating, practicing gratitude, journaling and other such methods of wellness.”

Ignore the FOMO.

FOMO, or fear of missing out, is often used to justify doing things we probably shouldn’t be doing, explained Julie L. Futrell, a psychologist in California. People often use this as a reason to stay plugged in.

You might be afraid of missing something, “but you can almost guarantee that if something major is happening, we all find out about one way or another,” Futrell said. “We are living in an information society.”

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