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A tank crushes a car with its Ukrainian driver inside. Within hours of the shocking incident earlier this year, more than eight million people had watched the horror replayed explicitly on one UK Facebook page alone.
Every hour, more of Putin’s atrocities pour into our homes, hearts and minds.
Broadcasters such as Channel 4 report that news audiences have doubled, while social media sites such as Twitter and TikTok are seeing surges in hits related to the war.
We feel compelled to see these events rather than turn our backs. We are desperate to help, if only by witnessing the agony of Ukraine’s people and willing their survival.
But experts warn that compulsively watching the war on-screen can harm our mental health — not least because this is adding to our burden of anxieties over Covid-19, economic turmoil and climate change.
Every hour, more of Putin’s atrocities pour into our homes, hearts and minds. Broadcasters such as Channel 4 report that news audiences have doubled, while social media sites such as Twitter and TikTok are seeing surges in hits related to the war
It was during the pandemic that the term ‘doomscrolling’ was popularised, describing our modern fixation with reading bad news online obsessively.
The term might be relatively new, but fears about the impact of media on our mental health are not. Between the 1920s and 1950s, the rise of broadcasting prompted experts to warn about the dangers of ‘radio mania’.
One report in The Journal of Pediatrics in 1941 claimed that listening to radio crime dramas could make children emotionally disturbed. And in the 18th century, the growing popularity of the novel sparked concern that ‘reading addictions’ were causing fans to copy their literary heroes and act immorally.
But experts say that the reach and shocking content of social media are creating mental health problems in brand new ways.
Dr Heather Sequeira, a London-based consultant psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society’s Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Psychology Section, told Good Health: ‘It’s not just on television, it’s on TikTok and every other social media. It’s everywhere.’
She is particularly concerned by unredacted footage on social media showing horrors such as dead bodies.
‘Unlike conventional news it’s not edited to remove traumatising scenes,’ she says. Studies back up that view. In the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people, a team at the University of California, Irvine in the U.S. surveyed more than 4,500 people.
The study, published in 2019 in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, found that the more graphic, bloody images of the victims a person had seen on social media, the more likely they were to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
‘Such news has almost got an addictive quality,’ says Dr Sequeira. ‘There’s a spiral into watching more as there’s a hope that if you get informed then it might make you feel better and somehow share the burden of people’s suffering. But it does not help at all.’
Instead, she warns: ‘Watching these tragedies empathetically hyper-sensitises your own nervous system. This can make you very anxious about aspects of your own life, which may rob you of sleep and make you more likely to ruminate on terrible things.’
Experts warn that compulsively watching the war on-screen can harm our mental health — not least because this is adding to our burden of anxieties over Covid-19, economic turmoil and climate change
Watching events on screens may be uniquely damaging. After Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, struck Florida and South Carolina in September 2017, its effect on children who lived there was compared with the impact on those who lived more than 2,000 miles away in San Diego (which was unaffected by the storm).
The Florida International University study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour in 2021, found that the more media footage about the storm that the children had watched, the greater their symptoms of PTSD, regardless of where they lived.
Psychologists had previously believed in a ‘bull’s-eye model’ — i.e., the closer the person is physically to a tragedy, the higher their risk of emotional trauma.
But that may no longer be the case. Now we can see everything on a screen, our brains think it’s all happening in front of us.
Not everyone is equally affected, says Gemma Taylor, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Bath. She told Good Health: ‘Some people are more prone to anxiety from watching the news, particularly news on unfiltered social media.
‘We definitely see people who are more lonely and anxious being more attracted to social media. But then you find signs of these people getting more anxious after being on social media.’
People who have suffered trauma in their own lives are also particularly vulnerable to graphic war footage, according to a study recently published in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy.
The study of 61 young adults in their late teens and early 20s, led by psychologists at the University of Vermont in the U.S., found that those who had experienced abusive childhoods were more likely to spend hours scrolling through traumatic news on social media, and then to suffer depression and PTSD as a consequence.
Regardless of our histories, Dr Taylor warns: ‘Social media can be difficult to switch off. You can get an instant hit of the reward chemical dopamine when you use it. This can be habit-forming.’
This has led us to consume unprecedented amounts of bad news, in a period when there is a constant stream of scary events.
Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, told Good Health: ‘First we had Covid-19 where every day we saw deaths and hospitalisations in the news. Then lockdown in 2020 isolated everyone socially.
‘People continued to track the bad news. Now we have this global security threat and a cost-of-living crisis. Such chronic stress can send your mood into a spiral.’
However, Professor Sahakian says we can also use media to calm anxieties, via ‘mood induction’ — choosing to watch a comedy that will leave you feeling ‘upbeat and energised’, for example.
Of course, you should also take a break from the news. Dr Sequeira says: ‘This can help your nervous system return to normal.’
Professor Sahakian adds: ‘We need to balance the stress and horror with other activities, such as learning something new, reading a book, exercising and socialising.
‘Some people feel somehow responsible for events, and think that watching them constantly will help,’ she says. ‘Instead, it’s good to feel positive mastery of the situation, such as by supporting a charity that helps Ukrainians.
‘Scans of people’s brains when they donate show that this activates people’s “reward centres”. So it can make you feel better about yourself as well as addressing that sense of powerlessness, and help others at the same time.’