In an age defined by universal digital connectivity, the instantaneous, frequent broadcasts of violence and traumatic events are leaving many viewers — including youth — desensitized. The degree of desensitization varies among people, but according to psychologist Anita Gadhia-Smith, “With the frequency of shootings and terror attacks there is a sense of anxiety that’s building in people, a sense of vulnerability and powerlessness.” People are so bombarded by traumatic events that they start to lose their emotional significance to avoid constant near-crippling anxiety.
Social media’s impact is a major element. A team of researchers at the University of Bradford in England presented compelling evidence, revealing that exposure to violent imagery on platforms like social media can lead to symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A steady stream of troubling events not only heightens anxiety levels, but also engenders desensitization that can persist until individuals, tragically, find themselves ensnared as victims.
This is very prevalent in the education system, particularly regarding school violence incidents. Students are losing their ability to care. Because of frequent coverage of school violence (even while schools remain, in general, among the safest places for youth) from K-12 to college and university campuses, the general student population is inhibited in trying to solve a problem. The detachment is as much a survival tactic as it is defeat.
The phenomenon of “emotional numbing” emerges as a coping mechanism, according to the Bradford study, providing a protective shield against the torrent of tragedies. However, this emotional numbing has mixed effects. While it offers respite from immediate distress and anxiety, it potentially renders a person less likely to respond effectively when confronted with a genuine threat. Moreover, there is a risk of gradual erosion of empathy, further contributing to the societal challenges we face.
Amid threats of violence, including gun violence, students find themselves grappling not only with the actuality of traumatic events, but also with false reports, particularly those concerning shootings. The imperative to respond to these reports as if they were genuine threats can contribute to elevated cortisol levels as an emotional response. Over time, individuals adapt to this relentless barrage by developing a coping mechanism — the aforementioned emotional numbing — as a shelter from the emotional toll.
While the precise impact of these incidents on the mental health of young people remains an evolving field of study, we do know something about the consequences of suppressing feelings of fear and anxiety. Prolonged suppression can manifest in a range of physical and mental health problems, from stomach pain and a rapid heart rate to insomnia and recurring negative thoughts.
However, not all hope is lost. Brain plasticity, or the ability of the brain to reorganize itself, offers hope, suggesting that young people possess the inherent capability to adapt to the stress of exposure to traumatic events, managing their emotional reactions and safeguarding their psyches from negative exposure. Essentially if someone can adapt to numbing, the numbing can be reversed. Cognitive reappraisal is an effective tool that aids children, teens and young adults in reinterpreting emotionally charged situations and holds the potential to significantly contribute to positive adaptation. Experts suggest strategies to encourage this by alleviating fear without succumbing to the detrimental effects of desensitization. People of all ages, from youth to military veterans, show resilience.
In a world saturated with tragedies — ranging from school shootings to global conflicts such as COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and the Israel-Palestine conflict — it becomes a formidable challenge to deeply empathize with fellow humans immersed in tragedy. Despite this overwhelming exposure, individuals can still exercise agency by making informed decisions about the information they consume and how they process it. Maintaining a sense of agency is pivotal for emotional well-being, as it provides a semblance of control over one’s actions and their consequences. The struggle with desensitization is not exclusive to any particular age group, but its impact is particularly observable in high schools, where the delicate balance between emotional resilience and vulnerability is most observable. Here on campus, we’re not far removed from those years and their vulnerabilities.
Enduring the desensitization dilemma in the digital age requires a nuanced approach that considers the psychological mechanisms at play. By fostering a supportive environment for emotional development and understanding the delicate balance between exposure and emotional resilience, individuals, especially the youth, can navigate the complexities of the digital age without sacrificing their emotional well-being. Don’t rely unduly on your screens. Seek help and balance with friends and family. Work toward a better world.