Note: this piece was originally published on the PsyberGuide Medium. You can read it here.
We have become accustomed to reading the latest headlines from a newsfeed.
Discussions of disaster, mass tragedy, and political scandal used to remain comfortably quarantined behind an anchor’s desk. Now, social media has outperformed traditional journalism in its influence over how we consume and share information — social, personal, political, or otherwise.
Noteworthy topics of the last year ranged from controversial to inflammatory, including commentaries on mental health: the release (and subsequent Season 2 premier) of “Thirteen Reasons Why”, proposed cuts to funding for mental health care, and the emotional “stability” of the millennial generation, to name a few.
My own feeds have been especially relentless, this year, in presenting headlines of harassment, abuse, gun violence, and natural disaster. In fact, I have taken a few respite periods from my accounts when the weight of watching personal and/or national traumas unfold from behind a computer screen becomes too upsetting to maintain.
Our news feeds themselves have evolved since their original inception in the early 2000’s. Now, our feeds are personalized, and programmatically curated to show us the stories that matter to us — the ones that feel personal. Social media have become incontrovertibly convenient in my own life, and I use them for reasons I consider valuable: I stay connected with old friends on Facebook, I watch real-time stories unfold on Twitter, and I document the life of my particularly photogenic dog on Instagram.
This type of technology can be great. It allows communities to mobilize and communicate around shared interests, it provides a space to share common experiences, and it can promote a sense of community.
It also means that when someone in your “network” experiences a tragedy, to anyone in that network, said tragedy is headline news. Have you ever heard about something awful — a death, a disaster — not from the news, but from your facebook feed?
Now let’s put that on a national scale. Imagine that the disaster you’re experiencing isn’t merely all over the newsfeeds of the people you’re friends with — it’s also in the print newspapers, broadcasted on national television, on the radio, and is a regular topic of discussion among peers.
I use a variety of social platforms for both personal and professional reasons. I try to keep up with current events, and remain aware of the social climate that I inhabit from day-to-day; in fact, staying aware is extremely important to me.
But managing the influx of emotional and poignant news can be overwhelming. Close friends of mine have chosen to disconnect entirely from social media, and I empathize deeply with their reasons for doing so. For me, completely “unplugging” would create a different set of personal and professional obstacles, making it an unrealistic long-term solution.
I’ve spent a lot of time discussing — both professionally, and among friends — how to navigate the delicate balance of benefits and hindrances that social media can provide.
Its 2018 now, and the troublesome headlines of last year show no sign of slowing down. Chances are that you, or someone you love, has been personally affected by at least one conversation on the national hashtag stage.
In 2011, MIT’s Sherry Turkle published a landmark book on the impact of social media on society and communication titled “Alone Together”; if you’ve spent any time at all watching home-hitting hashtags (e.g. #MeToo, #BelieveWomen, #WhyIStayed, #PrayForOrlando) make tidal waves across the internet, you are probably as familiar as I am with what she means.
As the web continues to expand and evolve, there will never be one “right way” to practice self-care on the internet. But however you choose to engage (or not) with the era of #InsertCrisisHere, a few important points still bear repeating.
- Follow the Airplane Rule — “Put your own oxygen mask on first”. Everyone needs help sometimes — including you. It can be powerful to reach out to other survivors, participate in protests, and make your story and voice heard; it is equally important to take care of yourself too.
- Choose your words carefully. When you talk about the outcome of a tragedy, or the actions of a perpetrator you are also describing the experience of a survivor. Be mindful of how you describe a disaster, an assailant, or an affected community. Chances are, those survivors are on the internet too.
- Trauma is an experience, not an event; your experience — no matter what it is — is valid. You may find yourself feeling anxious, scared, or ashamed. You may experience guilt over your own contributions — or lack thereof — to conversations that affect you. You may find yourself feeling “unworthy” of experiencing distress because “other people have it worse”.
- You do not owe your story to anyone.
You do not owe your comment to anyone.
And you are NOT alone.
If you or someone you love is in crisis, please call 9–1–1 or go to the nearest emergency room.
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1–800–656–4673
SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline: 1–800–985–5990
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273-TALK (8255)