Watching War Unfold on Social Media Affects Your Mental Health

Kristina Shalashenko, a therapist who lives in Odessa, Ukraine, lives through a nightmare each day, wondering if or when Russia’s invasion will force her to flee her home. “It’s very scary. Everybody’s terrified and in shock,” she says through a translator. “The world [we’re] used to, it’s not there anymore.”

Kero Lubkova lives thousands of miles away. She was born in Odessa. Lubkova doesn’t do it because the updates may influence their next move, but because they “cannot focus on anything else.”
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People are constantly looking for updates around the globe and see disturbing photos and videos: destruction of buildings, bodies, pets, shelters and people huddled together in shelters; and, in Ukraine, citizens cryingly call their families to say goodbye.

It’s a lot to process. “I definitely don’t think that anybody should ever be used to seeing things like this,” Lubkova says. “But that’s kind of what it came down to. If I want to know what’s happening in my country, I unfortunately have to see this with my own two eyes.”

Ukrainens and others around the world have been following the unfolding crisis through not just traditional news sources, however, they are also observing it on social media using raw TikTok videos, Instagram Stories, and tweets. It’s not exactly the “first social media war,” as some have branded it; social media has been used to document other armed conflicts, such as the Syrian war that began in 2011. The way that wars are documented on social media has changed drastically over the years. In 2011, TikTok didn’t exist and Instagram was a year old. Since Mar. 7. TikTok videos that were tag with #ukrainewar had been viewed nearly 600 million times.

The information stream is very useful. It makes people pay closer attention to the details and allows them to see what people are experiencing in Ukraine. Unfortunately, it can be costly to keep up-to date with all the developments. Research suggests that news coverage of traumatic events can affect viewers’ mental health—and with footage and photos from Ukraine flooding social media and misinformation spreading rampantly, that has implications for public health.

“People want to educate, people want to inform, people want to bear witness,” says Jason Steinhauer, author of History is being Disrupted by Social Media and The World Wide Web: How Social Media Have Transformed the Past. “The challenge is, it’s embedded within this [social media] ecosystem and architecture which, at its heart, is problematic.”

Roxane Cohen-Silver, an expert on trauma and media coverage, believes that media consumption and the content it contains can affect mental health. Compared to people who viewed less, those who watched at least four hours of television coverage per day during the week following the September 11 attacks reported increased stress and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and were at greater risk of developing health problems years later, Cohen Silver’s team found in a study published in 2013.

Learn More: The Fight to Save Lives in Ukraine’s Largest Children’s Hospital

It’s impossible to equate the experience of living through war to that of watching it unfold on a screen. But Cohen Silver’s research does suggest that news coverage can have a strong impact on people who are not directly affected by a crisis. The Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 resulted in a higher level of acute stress for those who consumed at least six hours each day related news coverage. This was more than just being present at the line at the explosions.

It’s difficult to tease out how social media versus traditional news coverage affects mental health, since few people exclusively view one or the other, Cohen Silver says. However, there are key differences. Traditional media outlets have editors who decide what content should be shown and label images that are disturbing with warnings. But people “can take pictures and videos and immediately distribute that [on social media] without warning, potentially without thinking about it,” Cohen Silver says.

Misinformation can also be spread through social networks. “Russia has been waging a social media and misinformation war for the past 10 to 12 years,” Steinhauer says, and that has only escalated during its invasion of Ukraine. Reuters reported that Ukrainian officials warned Russia about spreading false information suggesting Ukraine has surrendered.

This website is about technology and culture Enter also recently investigated Instagram pages that appear to feature “on-the-ground” posts from Ukrainian journalists, but are actually run by people thousands of miles away, including a 21-year-old man in the U.S.

Social media can be useful during times of crisis. Volodymyr Zeleskyy, President of Ukraine has used social media to reach out to the people and encourage strength and solidarity. Social platforms have also helped Ukrainian people share their realities with the world (including people in Russia who, because of misinformation, don’t believe the war is happening), contact family members, and find resources and support as the crisis unfolds.

The spread of fake news and the potential for online content to be altered or stripped from critical contexts can have a negative impact on mental health. Masha Mishkhaylova (a licensed clinical social worker who lives in San Francisco, but was born in Ukraine) says that this could affect our perception of reality. “Holding in mind the possibility that you’re going to come across something that’s emotionally manipulative and untrue can have a psychological toll,” she says. One timely example is misinformation’s link to poorer mental health during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Recent research in JAMA Network Open, which examined mental health during the pandemic, found a link between reporting symptoms of depression and believing vaccine misinformation (though the researchers couldn’t determine if one was causing the other).

Two years of non-stop negative news and fake news about the pandemic and countless stories on climate change, inequality and other emotional weighty topics led to the Ukrainian crisis. Studies suggest that news coverage of the pandemic has contributed to mental distress—and adding yet another difficult topic to the mix can worsen those feelings, Cohen Silver says. Her research has also shown that people who are prone to anxiety are more likely to seek out crisis coverage, potentially “fuel[ing] a cycle of distress…from which it’s very difficult to extricate oneself.”

It can be useful for anxious people—and anyone, really—to turn off the screen and walk away. Cohen Silver claims that she chose to learn about the conflict in Ukraine, rather than view images and videos that might be psycho-disabling.

But for people like Mykhaylova who have personal ties to Ukraine, “abstaining from the news and social media doesn’t feel like an option,” despite the drawbacks, she says. “I feel more calm and less disoriented when I’m engaging with what’s going on, especially if it’s content made by Ukrainians. It can definitely be disturbing and enraging…but my reaction feels like a righteous response.”

Lubkova agrees, noting that—while seeing photos and videos from the war is difficult—it’s sometimes harder to stomach the idea that others don’t seem to care.

Still, Mykhaylova says it’s important to set limits on the amount of time spent watching the news and checking social media. That limit will vary from person to person, and maybe even from day to day, but staying informed shouldn’t come at the expense of sleep, food, or time outside, she says. Therapy can also be helpful.

Steinhauer, the social-media author, says to remember that the compulsion to constantly refresh social media is, in part, “a byproduct of platforms and devices that have been purposefully built to be addictive.” More important than getting by-the-minute updates, he says, is staying engaged in the response to the crisis, whether that means donating money to organizations that are supporting Ukrainians, writing to representatives, or supporting people in your community who have ties to Ukraine. Those positive actions “could be a substitute for the doom-scrolling that the devices and the platforms draw us into, especially when there are these calamitous moments that require all of us to stand up and pay attention.”

Shalashenko in Odessa is the therapist. “I want the whole world to help us survive through this,” she says through a translator, “and stop this nightmare.”


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