My social media timeline is full of war-zone footage followed by cute kittens. That can't be healthy

Frequently seeing images of devastation and human tragedy can lead to anxiety, writes Justin Thomas
Close up teenage girl friends using cell phones

Recording another person's tragedy, suffering or moment of folly is cruel, posting it online is crueller still. The UAE telecommunications company, du, recently updated a public awareness campaign called #Postwisely. The message is simple and powerful: think before you post.

The campaign ultimately shines a light on social media misuse and unethical online behaviour. The campaign reflects growing international concerns about the adverse effects social media content and usage can have on mental health and psychological well-being.

I teach a class on psychopathology and I often ask the students to list some of the things they think contribute to mental health problems. One of the top answers is always, "the media".

Students will say things like, “the media presents a biased view of reality” or, “the airbrushed models in magazines lead to the development of eating disorders”. My classes have been saying these things for years. When I first started teaching, “the media” was some faceless “them”, a shadowy cabal of international corporations. Today, however, it is pretty clear, we are all the media.

The internet in general and social media, in particular, have radically altered the way we consume and exchange information and ideas. But many of the things we criticised “old media” about, we now do ourselves.

For example, we condemned old media for airbrushing models in magazines, today, however, using flattering filters on our photos is a must for many people. Similarly, we once lamented the media's skewed depiction of reality, now many of us promote equally distorted views of our own lives, hugely biased towards showing-off and exaggerating the good stuff. Old media might have had a negative impact on mental health, but media 2.0 can be far worse.

Old media might counsel viewer discretion, saying things like: “viewers are advised that some people may find the following scenes disturbing”. Old media gave me a choice; it gave me a chance to avert my gaze, social media offers few such safeguards. My timeline can throw up a juxtaposition as incongruous and harrowing as footage of a dead, war-zone, infant followed by a cute kitten in a shoe. That can’t be healthy.

Research supports my intuition. A study published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety in 2017, documents a phenomenon known as vicarious trauma. Across four independent clinical studies, 20 per cent of research participants demonstrated elevated symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after viewing traumatic events on social media. The idea that frequently seeing footage and images of devastation and human tragedy can lead to anxiety disorders feels like common sense to me.

Humans are incredibly intelligent, and we can weight up lots of information quickly. However, we achieve our speed and sophistication by relying on cognitive shortcuts. One such shortcut is called the availability bias, that is, we estimate the likelihood of events based on how quickly examples come to mind.

If we consume a lot of social media, we could be forgiven for imagining that the world is a scary place, and most people are happier and more beautiful than we are.

We have become the media that we used to complain about. If we are going to change our ways and post wisely, we must become wise. Understanding and caring about how other people might be affected by our content is perhaps one step closer to wisdom.

This appeal to post wisely is particularly important for those individuals who have amassed relatively large audiences (lots of followers), we might call these people "social media influencers". Influence is a neutral word, but it is possible that some of these individuals could come to have a negative impact on society. Under new regulations, the UAE will soon require social media influencers to secure a media licence. While this move is intended to regulate the financial aspects of their activity, it might also be worth considering the content. For example, if a social media influencer is using his or her influence to sell cigarettes to minors should we act? What about if they are fanatically endorsing unrealistic beauty ideals or diets?

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National