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How news and social media can hurt us

Crying_computer_userLately I've been talking with rabbinic colleagues about how best to minister to our congregants who are struggling with the news out of Israel/Palestine. We're hearing from people who are unable to fall asleep because they can't stop thinking about the images of destruction and grief, or who wake up and immediately start agonizing about the conflict or worrying about loved ones.

For some, the realities of what's happening there provoke a crisis of faith. For others, those realities provoke profound anxiety. How can we best care for people who are struggling in these ways? The question feels especially relevant to me because not only am I tasked with extending pastoral care to people who are struggling, but because I myself am also struggling to maintain my emotional and spiritual equilibrium in the face of the violence, destruction, and fear.

Maybe the first thing we can do is honor the reality of the struggle. A colleague just pointed me to something I found really interesting -- research showing that media exposure to trauma can create trauma in those who are watching, even from afar.

Tens of thousands of individuals directly witnessed 9/11, but millions more viewed the attacks and their aftermath via the media. In our three-year study following 9/11, my colleagues and I found that people who watched more than one hour of daily 9/11-related TV in the week following the attacks experienced increases in post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms (e.g., flashbacks, feeling on edge and hyper vigilant, and avoidance of trauma reminders) and physical ailments over the next three years.

The previous conventional wisdom had been that indirect media-based exposure to trauma is "not clinically relevant." But these researchers found otherwise. The article continues:

The relevance of indirect media exposure became apparent again after last April’s Boston marathon. In the days following the marathon bombings, my University of California, Irvine colleagues and I decided to replicate our 9/11 study and examine the impact of media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombings. We sought to look at all types of media: how much TV people watched, their exposure to disaster-related radio, print, and online news, and their use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Vimeo in the week following the bombings. We were especially interested in responses to social media coverage. Unlike traditional media that warn us about the gruesome nature of an image before showing it to us, social media typically display such images without warning.

Here's the conclusion to which I really want to draw your attention:

People who consumed lots of bombing-related media in the week after the bombings were six times more likely to report high acute stress than those who were at the Boston Marathon.

Let me be clear -- I am not suggesting that those of us who are following stories out of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza from afar are experiencing more trauma than those who are there. I recognize that from afar we can only barely begin to grasp the terror and the trauma. My child is safely watching cartoons; other peoples' children have been terrorized and killed. There is no comparison. What I am suggesting is that the media we consume has an impact in all four worlds: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and even physical.

I know that my social media experience right now is one of marinating in a constant broth of tragedy and anger. I know that I feel compelled to browse Facebook and Twitter -- both because they are online spaces where I typically check in many times a day, and because right now they're also sources of important news -- but every time I do so I come away crying or short of breath because the situation is so unbearable. Part of what's valuable to me about the article I've just cited is that it acknowledges and legitimates my lived experience.

It's important that the realities of this conflict be expressed. I know that it's important to those who are experiencing the tragedy and trauma of war that their stories and images be shared with the world. I understand that and I honor it.

And that makes it extra-important that we who are watching from afar -- whether via television news, or social media, or both -- exercise the good judgement to take care of our own emotional and spiritual boundaries. (See my post from a few weeks ago, Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.) Overexposure to trauma, even from afar, can be damaging.

 Rabbi Jay Michaelson recently wrote an essay for the Forward called 5 Ways To Turn Down the Social Media Flame. Here's an excerpt:

We do create communities of shared values, online as well as in person, and if those values are extreme one-sidedness bereft of analysis or reflection — well, that matters, if nothing else, to the kinds of communities in which we and our children are supposed to live.

Over the last week, I private-messaged half a dozen people who have frequently posted on Facebook one-sided accounts of the current violence. The (small, unscientific) sample included an ardent Zionist, moderate/two-state Zionists, and a BDS-activist anti-Zionist. Not one of them agreed to post accounts both of the Israeli suffering and of the Palestinian suffering. Each side insisted the other side is morally deficient, that there is no equivalence between them, and that there’s already too much attention to the other side’s suffering.

If a bunch of privileged Americans with so little at personal stake can’t internalize the importance of multiple narratives, how do we expect Israelis and Palestinians — both of whom are living under threat of imminent death, while I sit behind a screen in Brooklyn — to do better?

What he describes -- privately connecting with people who occupy different places on the spectrum of opinion, and discovering that none of them are willing or able to post accounts of the other side's suffering; each side insisting that the other side is "morally deficient" and that there is no equivalence between them -- that's been my experience, too. The entrenchment is profound, and most of us aren't open to hearing the narratives of the "other side." This is another variation on the echo chamber of homophily about which I've written before (Listening across our differences.)

It's tempting to want to respond to the echo chamber by shouting more loudly. But I don't think that actually works, and I think that giving in to that impulse can engrave hurtful grooves on our hearts. I've written about that before, too -- how easily the mind becomes accustomed to a thought pattern and gets stuck there; how our repeated thoughts carve grooves on the soft clay of our consciousness (Carving new grooves on heart and mind, 2013.)

Jay also writes about simple ways each of us can take control of our interactions. He shares the questions he asks himself before posting, forwarding, or amplifying news about Israel / Palestine. He concludes with the final question he asks himself before posting:

Why post at all? Rabbi Kurtzer has proposed a 24-hour “social media fast” this week, mirroring the fast of the 17th of Tammuz. That’s an excellent start. I suggest a different culinary metaphor, though. Let’s post only when it’s glatt kosher — or more precisely, glatt yosher, i.e., extremely just, righteous, compassionate, clear. If we pick and chose before posting the same way a Hasid picks and chooses before eating broccoli, our Facebook feeds would be a lot thinner and our collective blood pressure would be lower.

I appreciate his suggestion that we post only when we can exercise the discernment to tell that what we're writing is just, righteous, compassionate, and clear. And I would add: we should exercise that same discernment in deciding how and whether to participate in social media even as readers. What we take in, through reading or viewing, enters our hearts and minds. Some of us can manage that without experiencing trauma. Some of us are more emotionally porous and may be hurt by the repeated exposure. (And any given person may be at a different place on that spectrum at different times -- maybe one day you're able to manage what you're reading, and the next day it becomes too much.)
If watching the news or reading your social media feeds leaves you struggling with crying jags, panic attacks, nightmares, anxiety that won't let up, you are not alone, and what you're feeling is real. Different people heal in different ways, but I've found that the best tools include disengaging for a time from social media and the news, and when the obsessive anxious thoughts recur, just noticing them, without judgement, and redirecting my thoughts in another direction. For me that usually means prayer, but use whatever works for you: music, exercise, thinking about an event you're looking forward to, calling a loved one, whatever works.
Marinating in a perennial bath of horrific news can actually cause harm. Whatever obligations you may feel to those who are suffering, you aren't helping them by harming yourself.