Has our consumption of trauma on social media made us more empathetic or desensitised us?

·8-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

I have, for the past two months, like millions more across the globe, found myself glued to my phone, scrolling through the escalating tragedy in Ukraine. Devastation, bomb zones, the anguished faces of soldiers, refugees, grieving parents, children huddled in rubble and basements. It feels sometimes a vital injection of perspective, a trauma I should be witnessing because how dare I look away when others have no choice but to suffer through it. At other times it feels a voyeuristic violation; an intrusion into private sorrow and loss. At my most selfish moments it feels… too much.

Yet sometimes, especially when these harrowing images are interrupted by cat videos and Selling Sunset memes, I wonder; am I desensitised? After all, it feels only yesterday I was scrolling through the tragedies in Afghanistan or the horrors in Palestine. It makes you realise how quickly the world’s eye turns and how short attention spans can be; images of war slotting neatly in between TikTok dances and Julia Fox saying uncut jahhhms for the ten-thousandth time. But is this true? Is our constant consumption of the news this way really turning trauma into white noise, or can it be engaging us in a way like never before – a full immersion that could, actually, make us more empathetic?

I decide to ask Jeff Hancock. He runs the social media lab at Stanford University, which means he quite literally studies social media for a living. He’s zooming me from his home in California at 8am his time. He’s had his breakfast, he’s dropped his child at school and he has – almost certainly – checked his social channels a dozen times already. What he’s checking in on right now, is, of course– the situation in Ukraine.

“It’s what I’m drawn to more right now so that is mostly what my feeds are giving me,” he says, nodding bleakly. “We want to be informed and learn about the world and unfortunately, we're innately tuned to the negative. News editors had a dark but true phrase, at least in the US in journalism: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ and that is what these algorithms have picked up on. But, naturally, it is also what our human attention system is attuned to…”

He’s describing Doomscrolling, the process by which we spend an excessive amount of screen time absorbing negative news, something more easily enabled by social media which, unlike our more traditional forms of news updates, feel constantly accessible. “We consume media like a river now,” he says. “The fact is, this is the first time we have been reading the news, talking to friends or playing a game all on the same device, all probably within 10-20 minutes. This is a really new phenomenon for humans, but we also adapt. So, it's not that there's no effect. It could be that we're being desensitised. It could be that we're becoming more empathetic – it’s too soon to tell. But it certainly has completely changed the way we experience the world.”

The psychologist Natasha Tiwari feels that such a shift is developing faster than our psychological reactions. “It was not so long ago that we first had access to constant knowledge of what was in our immediate surroundings,” she says. “Our nervous systems have not evolved at the same pace; and it is entirely overwhelming for many of us – even traumatic for those who are the most sensitive.”

Hancock acknowledges that this unrelenting, absorbing consumption can be affecting. He recommends turning off notifications. “It doesn’t mean you don’t care, it’s just not natural to be checking constantly,” he says. “You need a breather from it – which I know is a privilege in itself.” It’s all part of what his social lab are investigating right now, the impact of ‘active’ social use versus ‘passive’. “You will feel less overwhelmed if you are searching for content on Instagram than letting the algorithm feed you.” He also stresses that, while social media is a great source of information, it should not, actually, be where you get your news. “I urge people to check everything on verified news sites. That will also drown out some of the online chaos.”

Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images

This feeling of being overwhelmed as a consumer of this content is also matched by what Holly Friend, deputy foresight editor at strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory, sees as a trend for focusing on negativity online – something which goes beyond the horror of global events and hints at a broader online temperament.

“We’ve been tracking the rise of doomscrolling since Covid-19 hit, an event that triggered an onslaught of performative negativity,” she says. “You only needed to glance at Instagram and TikTok to be exposed to the barrage of memes that epitomise this sense of mass existentialism. After all, Millennials and Gen Z have become defined by their melancholic, half-sarcastic approach to living, and this extends to the way they interact with news. Now, this attitude has been accelerated by the global chaos of the pandemic – and, of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

Essentially, be it the actual horrors of war, or our collective acceptance that the world is a terrible place (cost of living, bad work environments, climate change) the spirit of the online world has become an unavoidably depressing space. Does so much negativity – either actual or performative – turn us off emotionally?

“Yes and no,” says Friend. “I think the reason we are actively engaging more with bad news is that we want to validate and justify our anxieties. We have become familiar with the constant feeling of being overwhelmed, and social media news contributes to this, in turn teasing out our cognitive dissonance.” Tiwani agrees: “If you find you are seeing the news and are feeling completely unaffected, or not feeling the heaviness of the times, it is likely that after years of exposure to “doom”-worthy news, the overwhelm has led to you dissociating.”

The past few years have, of course, been particularly heavy; from Trump to #metoo, Covid-19 to George Floyd, Afghanistan to Palestine to Ukraine and much more. Not to mention the spectre of climate change looming large behind it all. Yet, our acclimatisation to these events being broadcast online means we also recognise how quickly our attention moves on. We understand online behaviour now, which means we may well become cynical about it.

“When we are bombarded by so much news all on the time, on every platform we use – even those designed for ‘socialising’ and ‘entertainment’ – it’s only natural to feel disconnected from it. Especially when the influencers you follow are posting Paypal links to help refugees one minute, and their morning smoothie recipe the next,” says Friend. “It’s hard for these types of performative acts of allyship and morality – which many of us will remember from the George Floyd murder – to come across as genuine, as these vital commentaries are happening in noisy apps in which everyone is competing to be heard.”

There is the question to be asked here: are we actually caring more because we see more, or because we feel the need to prove we care? Hancock has a more positive take on our humanity when it comes into contact with social media. His research has suggested that, while social media news consumption shows huge spikes in anxiety, not being able to access the news is almost equally as distressing: “People naturally want to feel connected,” he says. “Broadcasting your take on something isn’t always performative, it can often be part of a very natural human need to express yourself, and to offer support. So, engaging with the news like this is accomplishing that goal.”

That connection should, one hopes, breed more empathy, instead of desensitisation or disassociation. “In the wake of the pandemic, I do believe people have come to be more empathetic and mindful of the fact that we are more connected than we realise,” says Tiwari. “They realise now that in any form of disconnection and misinformation, we all suffer.”

For Hancock, he sees the move towards the metaverse and virtual reality as the ultimate next step for the online world increasing empathy. “Did you know that there's a video game from 2014 that was about a war in Poland and it is becoming really popular again, because people are like, 'Oh, this is what it's like to be in a siege situation in modern Eastern Europe',” he tells me. “I know that sounds weird but that shows you one thing that that VR has real potential for: increasing empathy. So, right now, I certainly feel empathy because I'm seeing these images and these videos, but if I'm in a VR space, which is much more tangible, then that could increase people’s levels of understanding and care. Short of actually being in a warzone, this would be the closest thing to feeling what it must be like.”

Whatever your relationship with social media is, the fact remains that our engagement with global news has never been so intense, and this is a tricky bind: moderating our consumption is often a necessary salve for our own wellbeing but paying attention right now is also vital. There is no easy answer to this, but being more conscious and controlled about our level of scrolling may go some way to reducing our sense of overwhelm, which in turn reduces the risk of desensitisation and, hopefully – short of a VR headset that places us in a war zone - will increase our empathy.

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