Violent news 'more intense' through smartphones and social media, expert says

Sadly, violent and disturbing news is nothing new. But the way it affects us has changed with our growing reliance on smartphones and social media, an expert says.

Information 'coming at us with such speed and such quantity that it can become quite overwhelming'

Police Chaplain Bob Ossler prays and weeps with a local resident as she places flowers on a memorial in Baton Rouge, La. Three officers were killed in the attack on Sunday — one event in a string of violence dominating news coverage in recent weeks. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Associated Press)

A 17-year-old wielding an axe attacks passengers on a German train. Three police officers fatally shot in Baton Rouge, La. More than 260 people die in a failed coup in Turkey. At least 84 people killed after a driver purposefully plows a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France. 

Those are the stories that dominated news coverage and social media feeds over the past few days, and the fact that they follow weeks of seemingly endless violence — from Baghdad to Dallas — has left many people wondering what is happening in the world. 

It's not as if bad news and violence are anything new. But the way it affects us has changed with our growing reliance on smartphones, says Fuyuki Kurasawa, an associate professor specializing in global digital citizenship at York University in Toronto.

'An event, whether it happens around the corner from us or it happens ... halfway around the world, we're seeing in the same way through our devices,' says Fuyuki Kurasawa, an expert in global digital citizenship at York University. (Fuyuki Kurasawa)

"What happens is that we have a very different relationship to news and to personal events when they emerge out of the use of these devices," Kurasawa said. "Instantly we get information that we may or may not want, that we may or may not be prepared [for], and that's coming at us with such speed and such quantity that it can become quite overwhelming."

With a TV newscast or newspaper, Kurasawa said, we tend to be more prepared for what's coming.

"There's a kind of concentrated moment where ... we're seeking out information that may be of a serious nature, that may be, in some instances, you know, quite upsetting," he said.

"Socially and psychologically, we're not necessarily bracing for that" when we're scrolling through social media feeds on our smartphones. 

"It tends to be much more intense, in part because we don't have as much of a barrier," Kurasawa said. "[News is] blended in with so many other things."

Someone could be checking stock market news, sports scores, or just looking at vacation photos on Instagram and suddenly see "horrific images and news that are coming from various parts of the world."

"New technology collapses time and space," he said. "An event, whether it happens around the corner from us or it happens, you know, halfway around the world, we're seeing in the same way through our devices. And that's a really strange and relatively new experience."

'Illusion' of social media control

Rena Bivens, assistant professor of communication at Carleton University, said people tend to have an "illusion" about how much control they have over what will pop up in their social media feeds. 

'It's important to notice when the violence of events around us is weighing on us too much,' says Rena Bivens, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. (Rena Bivens)

For example, users often think of Facebook as another "social space," similar to a coffee shop or someone's living room, she said.  

Though that can be the case, the difference is "we know who we invited into our living room and we're hearing the whole conversation. On social media, we think we're hearing the whole conversation but we're not," she said.  

That's because Facebook and other social media use algorithms based on past clicks or "likes" to determine what appears in each person's information feed, Bivens said.

Stress and anxiety 

The experience of following major events through social media can have both positive and negative effects, Kurasawa said. On one hand, watching comments, images and video posted by ordinary people who are in the midst of a crisis can generate a stronger feeling of connection to people living in different parts of the world and a sense of global unity.

On the other hand, being saturated with images of horror and carnage can lead to desensitization, or cause feelings of stress and anxiety, he said.

People can also "lose a sense of perspective about the state of the world today," he added.   

"Over the weekend, a lot of social media reactions stated that the world was falling apart, that 2016 has been a historically terrible year," Kurasawa said. "From a historical vantage point, however, and without minimizing several important events [that] have occurred recently, the world ... [has] been in much worse shape in the past. We are not living through a world war, the assassination of a U.S. president, or in Canada, something like the October 1970 crisis."

Following violent news on social media doesn't just have emotional and psychological implications; accuracy is also at stake, Kurasawa said.

"With social media, what happens is there is often a trade-off of immediacy and speed for accuracy and reflection," he said.

Kurasawa suggests taking the following steps while watching news unfold on social media:

  • Be skeptical of the information that first emerges
  • Be selective with what you view and what you share with others
  • Go back and check on what new information has emerged later in the day to "actually sort out accuracy from inaccuracy."
  • Seek out "trusted" sources of information 

Both Kurasawa and Bivens say it's important for people to be able to step away from their social media feeds.

"It's important to notice when the violence of events around us is weighing on us too much," Bivens said. "We can take care of ourselves by logging off or temporarily deleting our social media apps, or at least hiding them in a folder for a little while."

About the Author

Nicole Ireland

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.