Are we becoming numb to violence?
In recent weeks, headlines have been dominated by a series of disturbing news. Radio journalist Juan Jumalon was still on air when he was suddenly shot and killed inside his home in Misamis Occidental. The shocking incident was caught on a livestream of his show. Meanwhile, in Nueva Ecija, a 60-year-old woman and her 55-year-old partner fell victim to an ambush inside a bus carrying sleeping passengers. The entire attack was captured by the vehicle’s dashboard camera and immediately went viral online.
Living in an age of instant news updates, broadcasts of violence do not only happen frequently, we are also granted virtual front-row seats to these events through videos and photos shared by witnesses. Coupled with how social media has facilitated easy access to global news in a time seemingly marked by impunity, the result is a significant surge in distressing media content to which we are exposed every single day. It is worth pondering how this constant bombardment might be affecting our collective well-being and long-term mental health.
Individuals often turn to the news to try to understand and make sense of difficult situations. Studies show, however, that incessant access to disturbing updates could easily create a harmful cycle: Reading the news may increase a person’s anxiety, which in turn, could fuel a compulsion to keep knowing more about the issue. For those who have previously undergone similar traumatic experiences, continual exposure to media coverage on the subject may trigger symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks and nightmares.
While some individuals experience intense reactions, others cope by suppressing their emotions altogether, compromising their ability to empathize with victims. Systematic desensitization, a form of behavioral therapy, aids people in overcoming debilitating phobias by gradually exposing them to the stimulus until fear of it diminishes. Various research indicates that individuals may unknowingly experience the same level of desensitization to violence due to the high volume of violent media consumption, be it through crime-related news or graphic scenes in movies, shows, and video games.
The danger lies not only in becoming desensitized to others’ suffering but also in how it could foster more aggressive behavior that might lead individuals to act out violent scenes in real life. For instance, broadcasting news about mass shootings involving firearms appears to subsequently increase the occurrence of similar crimes in the future. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that children exposed to realistic and unpunished violence in media are more likely to imitate what they see and treat violence as an acceptable way to solve problems.
The likelihood of encountering disturbing videos on social media is always present but the risk escalates whenever a violent crime becomes a trending topic. Given the rapid vitality of such content, online platforms often struggle to enforce effective content moderation policies, leaving users vulnerable to seeing distressing scenes. Take, for example, the Nueva Ecija case. Before I even heard about it through traditional news outlets, my X (formerly Twitter) algorithm placed the unblurred video of the incident on top of my feed, catching me off guard and mentally unprepared for what I unwittingly witnessed.
Media organizations bear a crucial responsibility in mitigating the inadvertent spread of distress in the aftermath of violent events. Choosing a more balanced coverage that highlights informative content instead of graphic details could help lessen the impact of exposure to traumatic events. However, this is also an era where anyone with a smartphone and internet connection can break the news, and social media users share equal accountability in ensuring responsible reporting and reposting.
As consumers, we must monitor our media habits. By being more attuned to how a piece of news affects us, we can also make more informed choices. For example, psychologists recommend sticking to reading about traumatic events rather than watching video clips, as the text format may have a considerably lower mental and emotional toll. They also recommend assigning designated times to check the news to help limit exposure. Instead of round-the-clock scrolling, we could proactively set boundaries that will enable us to stay up-to-date without putting our long-term mental health at risk. For parents, it is advisable to pay extra attention to their children’s social media activity during periods when disturbing cases are gaining traction online.
In a culture inundated with increasingly violent media, the solution lies in moderation— both in the way news is reported and in the way we, as members of the audience, engage with it.