Think Before You Click: Self-Care & Graphic Online Content
In these times of 24/7 media, our internet habits have become pretty compulsive- For example, we may automatically click on articles with sensational headlines or check every news alert that appears on our smartphones. With this constant stimulation, it can seem as if we don’t have a choice when it comes to what media we’re exposed to in our streaming newsfeeds.
However we do have a choice, and there is one particular type of media for which we should be mindful of before viewing and/or listening: Videos and other words and images that depict graphic sights and/or sounds of trauma and devastation, which can consciously and unconsciously negatively affect your mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Graphic online content can be in the form of live or recorded videos (with or without sound), images, or even just words, all depicting verbal, physical and/or sexual violence, destruction, bloodshed or even deaths. Examples include anything from footage of disasters, to shootings, fights, or car crashes.
The effects of watching and seeing graphic content can be both overt and covert. Even when you’re in a good mood, or feel overall strong enough to engage with graphic content, repeated exposure can wear on you over time and weaken your resilience- your ability to bounce back from disasters and other traumatic or stressful events. Even a single instance of exposure, but especially repeated exposure to graphic online content, risks embedding disturbing sights and sounds in your mind that can be hard to forget, interfere with sleep, hinder your ability to concentrate, and affect your mood.
You may feel that you have a responsibility to witness graphic content in order to stay informed and raise awareness on issues for which you’re passionate, and indeed, for many people it can serve that purpose. But, utilizing some self-care can also help you safeguard your mental health when you consider looking at potentially disturbing videos or images.
Use the six tips below as a guide to navigating graphic content online.
1. Ask Yourself: Why?
Think about what you hope to get from seeing/listening to any particular media that has or may have graphic content. Will it really help you to understand a current event or issue better? If the answer is no or you’re unsure, it’s probably best to ignore it. There are other ways to stay informed and aware about what’s going on in the world.
2. Follow Trusted Sources
Limit your exposure to potentially graphic materials by limiting the social media accounts you follow that often share graphic content. Trusted sources will likely at least post warnings of potentially graphic content in their headlines, allowing you to choose whether or not you want to listen/view. If an account you’re following seems to constantly post disturbing/graphic videos or images, report it and let the company decide whether what they’re sharing violates their protocols.
3. Do a Self-Check
Before engaging in potentially distressing content, do a quick emotional self-check. Ask yourself: “How am I feeling right now? In this moment, am I really able to see/hear whatever this may show?” When we’re already feeling vulnerable or stressed out in life, exposing yourself to more stressful sights & sounds can exacerbate our feelings of vulnerability, not lessen them.
4. Take Time to Process After
Okay, so you’ve done a self-check and still want to engage in graphic online content. Afterwards, whether it was a single image or longer video, take a few minutes to process what you just heard or saw. Allow yourself to collect your thoughts, get up, walk around, etc. When we absorb graphic sounds and images, it’s important to process this information to help us make sense of it, or our minds may just keep replaying what you’ve seen and heard over and over, which can lead to conscious or unconscious distress.
5. Be Cautious Before Sharing Graphic Videos
You may decide you want to view graphic online content, but others around you may not. If your impulse is to share media that by any measure most would consider graphic and therefore potentially distressing, again ask yourself why. Think about who might inadvertently be exposed to any graphic content that you share, such as older kids, teens, trauma survivors, or anyone who might be particularly vulnerable to distress or other mental health concerns that can be triggered by even vicarious exposure to disturbing sights and sounds.
And, a bonus tip…
6. Reach Out for Support
If you experience any symptoms of distress related to viewing graphic content online, including triggers of serious pre-existing mental health concerns like depression, substance abuse, or thoughts of harming or killing yourself, you’re not alone: The national Disaster Distress Helpline offers 24/7, free and confidential support. Call or text 1-800-985-5990 to connect with a trained counselor.
Christian Burgess, MSW, is Director of the national Disaster Distress Helpline, a program of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration administered by MHA-NYC.