The Effects of Watching Someone Die on Social Media
With the recent, disturbing shootings in the news (Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA, Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN, death of five police officers in Dallas, TX, and death of three police officers in Baton Rouge, LA), it is hard to avoid hearing about it. But with the prevalence of smartphones today, it is also hard to avoid seeing these deaths on social media, sometimes even live. You may have seen the video of Alton Sterling shot by police officers, and with the feature of live video on Facebook, some saw the death of 32-year-old Philando Castile in real time. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, broadcasted her boyfriend’s last moments live on her Facebook page after being shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. This, of course, was very upsetting to many viewers, including editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com Damon Young, who was avoiding the footage of Sterling’s death. "I just spent my entire day trying not to see this other thing, and accidentally I see something that’s even more graphic of someone being murdered," Young told Mashable.
There is not much research on the effects of traumatic media exposure, and this is because performing studies exposing people to such content could be damaging and will raise controversy. Some studies have been conducted with adults and children viewing coverage of disasters, terrorist attacks and political violence. The results have come back that being exposed to such content can be harmful. Needless to say, not many are surprised to learn that.
However, live footage of someone’s death, like of Reynold’s live Facebook video, is different when compared to traditional news coverage, which is largely edited. The graphic images shown by the victim themselves presents new unknown territory. April Foreman, a psychologist who works with combat veterans as the suicide prevention coordinator at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System in Baton Rouge, LA, says that it is mostly unhealthy for people to continuously be second-hand witnesses to traumatic events, especially if they are more vulnerable to the subject matter they are viewing. The effect of seeing these images could be multiplied if the viewer identifies with the victim.
"It feels hyperbolic, hysterical even, to suggest that murders like the murder of Alton Sterling also kill a part of us each time it happens," Young wrote. "But what’s happening here to me — what’s behind my reaction to this, I suspect — is a slow and subtle and steady loss of humanity.”
By Thursday afternoon, Young was a part of several digital conversations about the deaths of Sterling and Castile. “They were all about ways we have decided to assess and process it,” he said in an interview. "We’re not even talking about police brutality and what needs to happen next — it was all about some form of self-care." That is not as simple as trying to stay away from graphic footage. It also means figuring out a way to respond to these killings while in public. "That's another part of this that maybe people who aren’t people of color and don’t experience these types of things might not realize," he said. "There’s this obligational pressure to respond."
Foreman is working with patients in Baton Rouge who did not know Sterling but were affected by his death. Instead of focusing on the issue of watching the video, she focuses on the outcome. She says feeling numb is a “survival mechanism” to continued exposure to violence and trauma. But there is a difference between desensitization and apathy. Desensitization helps people be constructive to make their communities more unbiased; apathy can encourage hopelessness and unresponsiveness. "It is not the intensity of the emotion, but the effectiveness of the action you take that matters," Foreman said.