Distressing digital content on social networks in times of war – and guarding your mental health

There is a lot of harrowing audiovisual content circulating on social networks – not only while there is a war raging in Ukraine. Viewing it can have serious negative impacts on mental health and cause secondary trauma. This article takes a closer look, points to potential risks and provides some basic advice.

A huge explosion – first a massive orange-yellow flash, then plumes of smoke rising. The location is an administrative building on the edge of Svobody Square in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. This scene could be watched unfiltered all over the world shortly after it happened on 1 March 2022. The video of the explosion, caused by a missile strike as it later emerged, was shared widely on social networks. A few days later, it has been viewed several million times.

The war in Ukraine is also a digital war. The movements and reporting of journalists on the ground are limited, access to most areas is restricted or impossible. Hence a lot of the information coming out of Ukraine is so-called user-generated content, or eyewitness media. It is mostly raw. Editorial standards do not apply. This, in turn, means that a lot of harrowing material makes it to the screens of social media users the world over.

What does this mean for people who consume content from the war in Ukraine online? How can potential psychological injury be avoided, or at least limited? How can users stay informed on the one hand, while they protect their mental health on the other hand? This article takes a closer look.

Secondary trauma

Secondary trauma refers to distress or negative emotional effects that result from secondhand exposure. In other words: secondary trauma can occur when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another person or is exposed to respective gruesome or distressing material contained in images or videos that were not witnessed directly.

Especially repeated exposure to disturbing content carries the risk of negative consequences regarding mental well-being. If at all possible, this should be avoided.

Awareness and being prepared is vital

Studying psychological effects of exposure to distressing digital content residing in social networks is a relatively new field of research. The same applies to the study of effective countermeasures. Some leading experts in the domain are located at the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Sam Dubberley, Managing Director of the Digital Investigations Lab at Human Rights Watch and co-author of an illuminating report on eyewitness media and vicarious trauma.

Asked about his advice regarding the current situation in Ukraine, Dubberley states that in his view it is vital to “always be prepared, avoid surprises, and be ready to view distressing material any time when moving online.” While Dubberley’s research has focused on secondary or vicarious trauma in the journalistic and human rights context, some of his findings can also serve as advice to ordinary social media users viewing content from the war in Ukraine. Dubberley stresses: “Be honest to yourself. If you see something distressing that affects you, acknowledge it. Don’t brush it under the carpet or pretend it doesn’t affect you if it does.”

Everyone is different

It is important to stress that everyone is different. Individuals react differently to the same or similar occurrences or exposures. Furthermore, much depends on the frame of mind prevailing at the time of exposure. Someone who expects to counter potentially disturbing material can “put up his or her guards” beforehand in order to prepare accordingly for what may come up on screen.

Furthermore, it is different things that may trigger individuals. For some it is viewing explicit physical injuries, while for others it is the sad or desperate look of a child. Taking your personal situation into account is also important. Having a personal connection to an event plays a role, too. There is no particular universal technique or guideline that works for everyone in every type of setting. Nevertheless, a number of measures and activities can help limit negative consequences.

Tweet by Nik Millard (@nikcam12) including video reporting by the BBC’s Fergal Keane (@fergalkeane47)

Limiting negative impacts on mental well-being in times of war and conflict

Being prepared to potentially encounter disturbing or distressing material when scrolling your news feed is an important strategy. In times like these expect a horrific photo or video to be served up to your screen at any moment. That is why it is highly advisable to be mentally prepared permanently for what you are about to see when going online. Always expect the worst.

Do not underestimate the power of sound! Whenever you scroll your news feed, messenger or social network of choice, turn off the sound. Research has shown that the sound of, say, a person being seriously injured or harmed, “sticks” far more to the psyche than visual material. There are many highly disturbing videos circulating online showing humans who are victims of attacks and assaults, being recorded and then disseminated to a worldwide audience – potentially also to your screen. Hearing their pain and suffering can burn itself into your mind for a long time.

The power of video

If you watch videos from the war, reduce the size of the video window. You do not want to witness a person suffering in full screen and high definition, should this be necessary at all. Also, be prepared to stop a video at any time or close the viewing window any moment. Disable auto play in order for videos to only start when you want them to.

When you are about to play a video, hover over the progress bar to preview what is about to come to prepare yourself. And remember, turning away from the screen is always an option too.

Self care – treat yourself

Another piece of advice: take breaks from news and give your mind a break, too. Do not expose yourself to a constant stream of war footage, almost every waking hour. Also think about turning off alerts or push notifications, at least some of the time. Otherwise, you never know what will show up next on your smartphone.

Instead of permanent news consumption, make sure to also do nice things. Treat yourself! Go for a walk outside, do some exercise, exhaust yourself physically. Spend time with others, socialize. Isn’t there that restaurant you always wanted to visit, or the play or parc you wanted to see but didn’t manage to for all sorts of reasons?

Nature, going out. (c) Jochen Spangenberg

If things turn really bad: seek help

While the above tips may help to some extent, you can never be sure if you will remain unaffected mentally. If this does happen and you experience something awful or notice some “unusual signs” (such as problems sleeping, frequent nightmares, excessive alcohol or drugs consumption, to name but a few) try and talk to others about your feelings. This can be family, friends or colleagues. Do not keep it all to yourself.

If all that fails, and you notice something troubles you deeply or for longer periods, seek professional help. Do not feel ashamed about it at all – rather the contrary. True heroes are those who confront their emotional or mental issues and deal with it openly. In doing so, they can serve as role models for others and thereby also end up on the supporting side.

These are distressing times, not only for Ukrainians who are directly affected. While it is important to stay informed, you also need to look after yourself and be aware of possible risks that may result from exposure to disturbing digital material wherever you encounter it.

Selected additional sources

The sources below deal primarily with journalism, human rights work and (secondary) trauma in a professional context. They still contain useful tips for “ordinary people” dealing with digital content that is potentially distressing.

BBC / Trusted News Initiative: The human cost of disinformation. Learn how to reduce the threat and psychological trauma.

Bellingcat / Hannah Ellis: How to Prevent, Identify and Address Vicarious Trauma — While Conducting Open Source Investigations in the Middle East.

DART Center for Journalism and Trauma

DART Center for Journalism and Trauma: Working with Traumatic Imagery

Eyewitness Media Hub: What Makes Eyewitness Media Traumatic?

Eyewitness Media Hub / Sam Dubberley; Elizabeth Griffin; Haluk Mert Bal: Making Secondary Trauma a Primary Issue: A Study of Eyewitness Media and Vicarious Trauma on the Digital Frontline.

Sian Williams: Managing anxiety during the Ukraine crisis – small things that can help in big moments.


A similar version of this article was published on dw.com on 9 March 2022.

About jospang

I do media stuff. And have lots of other interests. Some of that I share, some I don't.
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