'I'm along for the ride, and not liking myself for it. It's a time-waster and an energy suck. … but it's where my mind is going."
Vancouver's Barb Justason is describing her recent uptick in Twitter use, as she obsesses over the continually developing Jian Ghomeshi scandal. When she's not searching for news, she's being drawn into arguments about issues like consent and sexual violence. At the end of the day, she's exhausted and feels terrible.
Sound familiar? As Canadians have scrambled to digest and analyze three major news events that unfolded over social media in the last three weeks – the killing of a soldier in Quebec, the attack on Parliament and allegations of violence by the former CBC radio host – we have been glued to our mobile screens. The Ottawa shootings provoked nearly 400,000 feverish tweets on Oct. 22 alone, according to a search of the word "Ottawa" on the analytical tool Topsy. (Another telling statistic: the hashtag #cdnpoli registered about 17,000 tweets on Oct. 21. That increased nearly three-fold, to 50,000 on Oct. 22.). The Ghomeshi scandal, meanwhile, exploded as news emerged that he had been fired by the CBC. Ghomeshi took to Facebook to allege he was fired because he liked to engage in "adventurous forms of sex" and the post garnerned more than 100,000 "likes" in a matter of hours. Later that night, a story was published in which accusers came forward with allegations of non-consensual violence. Its incredible momentum on social media has been fuelled by new developments, new accusers, new allegations, and the rush to react – resulting in more than 125,000 tweets to date. And those hours spent scrolling and refreshing have an emotional impact.
According to psychology experts, we slavishly engage via social media when big events are unfolding because humans are biologically hardwired to try and understand and control our environment. "We continually monitor events and ask, 'Does it have to do with me, am I in danger?'" says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, Calif. The cost of such a binge, though, especially when dealing with emotionally difficult material, can amount to more than just hours lost staring at a screen: When the material being consumed is emotionally charged – when users are constantly ingesting, and possibly absorbing other's fear, anxieties and stories of violence – a person's world view can be challenged. This might explain the mental fatigue that Justason describes.
This phenomenon of incurring an unhealthy or unrealistic world view was first observed by U.S. communications professor George Gerbner, who developed the Mean World Syndrome theory in the 1970s. It's a cognitive bias wherein consumers of mass media can come to believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is through constant exposure to violent imagery or commentary. The theory applied mostly to television and numerous studies have backed it up since. A report this year from the University of Oklahoma, for example, found "good evidence establishing a relationship between disaster television viewing and various psychological outcomes," such as depression, fear, anxiety, anger and substance use, and especially post-traumatic stress. While social media is too new to draw definitive conclusions about its psychological effects, there is some suggestion Gerbner's theory may be even more relevant now, given how information is disseminated.
In June, Facebook drew heavy criticism for revealing an "emotional contagion" experiment it had conducted on about 700,000 users. The website reduced the number of positive posts some users saw, which resulted in those people producing fewer upbeat and more negative expressions. The reverse also held true when researchers reduced the number of negative posts visible. "These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks," the researchers wrote.
Another study from the University of California in San Diego, published in Public Library of Science One in March, found that something as simple as mentions of rainfall on Facebook affected other users' moods negatively. "For every one person affected directly, rainfall alters the emotional expression of about one to two other people, suggesting that online social networks may magnify the intensity of global emotional synchrony," the researchers wrote.
Social media isn't just accelerating the news cycle and adding to its volume, it's also introducing new dimensions to it. The emotional responses, the angry debates, the rush to pick camps, the judgments that are implicit in that – these are phenomena that existed only in limited form in the era of traditional media.
"It's not as visceral as seeing an event on television," says Jean Kim, a psychiatrist for the U.S. State Department. "But if you're overly getting caught up in troll wars or controversy online, you might be getting a skewed view and be prone to being directly affected."
The allegations against Ghomeshi, for instance, can take on added relevance because people close to us care enough to post and comment on Facebook or Twitter, and even share their own experiences. It feels "like an emergency because of our relationships with our communities," says Jaigris Hodson, an assistant communications professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Justason, who runs a polling company in Vancouver, says her own interest in the Ghomeshi case is at least partially rooted in issues of personal safety and even therapy, even if she wasn't initially conscious of it. "I've literally worked for people who would pat me on the head and say, 'good girl,' " she says. "There is something therapeutic about this."
There are some who feel more than just a personal connection to a news event, for whom triggering post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real possibility. While traditional media like newspaper and television generally give advance warning when certain contact may act as triggers, social media exchanges lack any such cautions.
Fortunately, what the medium takes away, it can also give back. A recent study from John Hopkins University in Baltimore suggests it is possible to use Twitter as a proactive diagnosis tool for potential mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress, depression and seasonal affective disorder. Language recognition software can study the words people use and thus gauge their mental states and moods. Individuals themselves could then use such technology, perhaps in the form of onscreen warnings, to remind themselves of when they might need a break.
That "off" switch is becoming more important in the social media age, experts say. Seeking out information to ascertain one's personal safety is a biological imperative, but so is a tendency to overdo things. Much of the solution will depend on people becoming aware of their own satiation points, Hodson says.
For those who simply can't tear themselves away, Rutledge suggests seeking out content that can counter some of the crushing weight of digesting traumatic events, and of Mean World Syndrome. There's no shortage of positivity to consume. "You can remind yourself that there's a lot of humanity that's joyful and exuberant," she says.