I Don’t Think We’re *Actually* Dealing with the Trauma We See on Social Media

Here's why that's a problem

Pixelated facebook logo against a red background

(Illustration: Joel Louzado)

I hold my breath in grim anticipation. I already know what I’ll see when I look at the photo—the description alone is enough to pierce my heart, and part of me thinks I should avoid the image altogether. But it’s a privilege to avoid seeing the true human toll and tragedy of life as a refugee, particularly at the U.S. border these days, so I look.

The image of my screen is a father and his toddler laying face down, partially submerged in muddy brown water. They drowned on their way to America, and the photo is as heartbreaking as it sounds; when I see it I explode into violent tears. My whole body shakes with horror, desperation and the kind of sadness that echoes in your bones. We’ve heard so much about the plight of refugees around the world, and especially about the terrible, dehumanizing conditions of these American camps, where young children are held away from their families. But seeing this image has a visceral effect—I know it will haunt me for a long time.

Yes, I could choose not to look, but looking, bearing witness to these injustices is our moral duty and has become one of the ways in which we hope to change the outcome. Looking galvanizes people. It forces empathy in a way that words simply can’t. 

We share these types of images in an attempt to spark change

But that doesn’t mean the sheer volume of devastating images doesn’t have an impact on us.

How many times have we all paid witness to the devastation wrought by collective indifference or governmental cruelty, forced ourselves to participate in the loss of life with the hope that by recognizing these tragedies together it will change the outcome for someone else, only to see our timelines light up with another image, another video, another life, another tragedy?

Whether it’s police violence, public acts of racism, the desperate reality of climate change, international uprisings or mass shootings on this side of the world, social media—particularly platforms like Twitter—have made it easier to share news and created a situation where we’re inundated by tragedy at an unrelenting pace.

This concentration of media and information means that rather than consume news from one or two sources and at set points in our days, we encounter it pretty much constantly, from dozens of outlets, who often post raw accounts of harassment, violence and death. The end result is micro-trauma, which psychoanalyst Margaret Crastnopol describes as “small, subtle psychic hurts” that, like minor physical injuries, can build up over time. Similar to the notion of micro-aggressions—the “daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities that communicate hostility, whether intentional or unintentional”—the impact of micro-trauma is cumulative, and it can have a ravaging affect on our psyche and emotional wellbeing. 

Micro-trauma can have real effects on our mental health

We are constantly experiencing these micro-traumas without recognizing their impact on our mental health—and with no real outlet to treat how they make us feel. I worry that on top of how it affects our mood, the sheer volume of content can lead to a kind of numbing effect that can shapes how we engage (or don’t) with social and political issues on a larger scale. We become overwhelmed with tragedy but are often unable to affect real change because while social media allows us to witness and share news, it doesn’t always encourage us or give us the tools to take action beyond the digital sphere. So we try to amplify the message hoping that will be the solution. But when we can’t see change beyond our timelines we can end up carrying feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation with us off-platform. It leaves us both polarized and powerless, which in turn has us turning back to social media to find answers and connection.

“It’s become so normalized and we’re so inundated by it that until you take a break, you don’t even realize how it’s affecting you emotionally. But we now know that young people experience loneliness, depression, anxiety, shame and even guilt spending so much time online,” Jennifer Shapka, a professor of developmental psychology at UBC, tells me. “And it’s not even a matter of, ‘I read this thing it made me feel bad’, it’s a total creep into our lives,” she continues.

Those feelings of low worth, depression and anxiety are then amplified by the addictive nature of the devices, fuelled by an actual physiological change in our state when we’re apart from them. We already experience collective dread from just logging onour heart rate goes up, we start to sweat, when a phone beeps on a bus we all instinctively go to check our own even if we know it’s not ours. So, is it any wonder that this already negative experience can exacerbated by the actual content we consume while we’re there?

What you can do to minimize the impact of online trauma

So, how can you counteract the negative impact of what you’re engaging with on social media? Obviously, reduce the amount of time you spend on social media if you can. But even just turning off your notifications can be a simple yet effective tool in digital self-care.

“The notifications exist to get people to spend more time on the device, so if that didn’t exist we would use these platforms at our own pace,” Shapka says. “Without the timestamps and alerts there’s no sense of urgency, so you feel you have more control over how you use the platforms.”

Still, I don’t know that the answer is in logging off forever (if only!) and I would never suggest living in a bubble of good news. One of the most incredible uses of social media is its ability to connect us to the experiences of other people, to see beyond our own privilege and find empathy for each other in new ways. Continuing to pay attention to what happens outside our echo chambers is critical to shaping our collective humanity. 

But being more aware of how what we consume impacts how we feel is imperative if we want to understand how we interact with and process the world around us. If we were better able to sit with our emotions after viewing something violent or frustrating or enraging and channeling that emotion towards change instead of inward, think of how much more we could achieve collectively. And at the very least, when talking of self-care, we need to practice checking in with ourselves about how we feel throughout the day and what part of any negativity we’re holding is related to our social media consumption.


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