Social media has transformed the way people gather and learn news, particularly during tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting and the California wildfires. But while these platforms can provide a trove of useful information in real time, using them constantly may also be damaging to mental health.
A new study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences shows that people who excessively check social media during horrific events may experience more psychological distress. Social platforms can spread misinformation more easily (think unconfirmed reports or updates from people who aren’t professionals investigating the situation), which may further affect a person’s mental state.
Researchers surveyed more than 3,800 students at a university a week after their school was locked down due to an active shooter on campus. They also analyzed Twitter and other social media data posted during and about the shooting. Participants were asked what sources they relied on during the tragedy, which included school and local authorities, loved ones, social media and traditional media like television or radio news.
Those respondents who relied on friends, family and social media for their news were subject to the most misinformation. Those individuals also experienced more anxiety surrounding the event, particularly those people who trusted the information they were told on social media. People who turned to traditional media sources didn’t have the same stressful experience, according to the study’s authors, but it’s unclear why this occurred.
Since it’s nearly impossible to conduct a scientific study amid a crisis, a major caveat with this research is that it’s relying on self-reported emotions following the event. It’s unclear what people’s social media behaviors and stress levels actually were in the moment when the tragedy was occurring.
That being said, researchers do believe the study offers valuable insight on how people respond to tragedies. Lead study author Nickolas Jones says people may turn to social networks for information as a way to help them feel in control of a situation where they’re otherwise helpless. This may cause the brain to search for answers, making people more susceptible to believing wrong information as well as feeling stress.
“You’re going to feel something no matter what because you’re a human being,” Jones, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine, told Mashable. “Where you go from there to mitigate anxiety is what really matters.”
This can also apply to those people who may be following a tragedy but not directly involved, Jones told the publication.
So what exactly do you need to do to manage that anxiety? Many people don’t want to ditch social media altogether, but there are some ways to navigate it while minimizing psychological distress. Below are a few expert-backed ways to take control of your mental health while still staying plugged in:
Start by understanding that social media plays a role in how you feel.
These platforms can influence your emotions, even if you’re not directly involved in an event, according to Francisco Cruz, lead psychiatrist at Ketamine Health Centers. So be mindful of that as you’re scrolling.
“Social media fuels the curiosity of victims and spectators that want to know what’s going on throughout these tragic scenarios,” Cruz said.
Be skeptical of the source.
If someone is sharing information in a tweet, check their credentials. To manage anxiety, “it’s critical to seek reliable media outlets and police officials that are closely monitoring the situation,” Cruz said.
Use social media as a source for good.
Reach out to loved ones who may be struggling and let them know you’re thinking of them, or share updates on your wellbeing if you can. You can also take positive action ― either online or off ― when you feel like you can, Cruz said.
“Another proactive way to dispense these thoughts is by funneling these emotions into action, whether that’s reading a book, meditating, joining a volunteer group or donating to an organization of your choice,” he explained. “Shifting the focus on the positive will ultimately morph your thinking as well.”
Limit your social media exposure where you can.
This may be difficult in the moment (like in the case of the study) but it’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind for those following from afar.
“Social media may amplify the possibility of acute stress disorder that will lead to re-occurring flashbacks, nightmares and lack of concentration. Therefore, limit the amount of time you spend on social media,” Cruz said.
Prioritize your mental health.
Bottom line: It’s totally normal to feel this way during and following a tragedy. If you notice that you’re feeling excessive distress or anxiety following an event, reach out to loved ones or even a professional for support.
“Your mental health is of utmost priority and if it’s not in good standing then the symptoms may snowball and affect other aspects of your life such as personal relationships, work and your overall wellbeing,” Cruz said.