Is Social Media Making Us Numb to Violence?

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The constant barrage of bad news can leave teens feeling worn out and desensitized to violence. (Source: Rodnae Productions)

By Catherine Wang (III) and Cinly Mo (III)

It is not news that most American teenagers are not reading the daily newspaper or listening to radio broadcasts. Instead, social media has become an integral part of the news diet of an increasingly large share of the United States population: a recent Pew Research Center report showed that 73 percent of Americans use social networks to access their news. Unfortunately, this unwavering cycle of disheartening news has left many teenagers desensitized to injustices and traumatic events.

For example, this exposure to unwarranted violence has caused people to make jokes out of serious situations and belittle the severity of events. Generation Z has become notorious for resorting to jokes when hearing of serious issues such as the coronavirus outbreak, the 2020 election of the president and, most recently, the Capitol attack. Young adults increasingly use dark humor as a coping mechanism for such events, not allowing themselves to process trauma healthily.

Christina Zhu (II), a student well-known on TikTok, recognizes that. “Social media has made us numb to current events because everything moves so fast online and if something bad happens, people are sad about it for a while, jokes are made, and we all move on, and it repeats itself […] it’s basically an endless cycle.”

Because news comes and goes practically at the speed of light, it does not allow young people to fully internalize the severity of what is truly happening. But what is more discouraging is the flood of inexcusable violence they are being exposed to through social media.

Social media is frequently used as a tool for both teenagers and adults to feel more connected to their friends and close circles. Prior to quarantine, most people would not expect their social media timelines to be bombarded with acts of violence and brutality. Following panic surrounding the pandemic, the death of George Floyd and the result of the presidential election, users took to social media platforms as an outlet to express their discontent.

Although many people have good intentions when sharing graphic posts, social media users often fail to consider the effects that such content can have. For instance, during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, a myriad of videos exposing police brutality and their unjust treatment towards people of color were shared across the internet.

As Nitz-fa Dimanche (I) explains, “It becomes so overwhelming at times and other times I don’t even notice when I’m numbingly watching violence. It’s a scary time to have those images of violence to not be as shocking or terrifying.” Videos of graphic police brutality were especially distressing to many people, particularly Americans, and led many people to log off and avoid social media altogether.

This practice of frequently sharing shocking or disturbing videos will ultimately lead to the desensitization and normalization of these events. Relying solely on the shock factor of brutality and violence will numb people to them in the long-run. Manipulating people into “caring” about these issues by using shock factor to raise distress over these topics creates very short-lived awareness and minimizes the gravity of those events.

Some users harness social media to demand justice for victims of systemic inequity, while others utilize platforms to hold themselves accountable. This gesture becomes largely empty when no further action is taken, however, and lessens the impact of these important events and injustices. During the BLM movement, there was an accumulative pressure from others to perform somewhat meaningless actions in the name of social justice.

As Ms. Lynn Burke, an English teacher at Boston Latin School, explains, “It’s kind of like putting a sign up on your lawn — it makes yourself feel better as someone who cares about important issues, but you don’t put in the actual work, [which as a result, makes] these gestures become largely empty.”

Because performative activism is so surface-level and disingenuous, it turns into a cycle of a passive form of “protest” which is usually limited to reposting digestible quotes and viral videos. This ultimately leads to social media desensitization by watering down the impact of often complicated issues.

This numbing effect is also a byproduct of users scrolling past the same posts so much that it becomes habitual and escapes their mind. Although sharing pictures and videos have been some of the most effective tools of civic activism throughout history, this flood of “activism” in today’s media is what downplays these major issues for many.

While social media has done wonders in terms of expanding our awareness of what is going on in the world, it has also had the unfortunate side effect of making an entire generation numb to injustices and trauma. In order to actually elicit change in the world, we must become more active in our consumption of news and engage with these events in a healthy manner.