Skip to content

The psychological effects of viewing death and violence on social media


In light of the recent court decision to find Minnesota Officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty on all counts in the shooting death of Philando Castile, which was broadcast live on Facebook, the question is thrust back into the forefront of our attention: What would you do, if you saw someone dying on social media?

Picture this: You’re browsing on your favorite social media site, scrolling past the arguments in the comment section, and you come across a video of a person dying. What do you feel? Do you freeze? Do you cry? Are you numb? Do you keep scrolling by unbothered?

Contrary to popular belief, the decision to scroll past the graphic video is not an uncommon one for social media users. I can bear witness. I have become desensitized to death in the form that it takes on social media.

On July 6, 2016, a video showed the aftermath of Castile being shot four times by officer Yanez. His death—which was livestreamed on Facebook by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds—in minutes received thousands of re-postings and rode the wave of outrage that carried over from the death of Alton Sterling whose demise was captured on camera just a day before.

Some individuals, like social media activists such as Shawn King, feel that sharing videos of police brutality brings awareness, but most do not take into account the psychological repercussions of watching death in real time.

“The relationship people have with technology can emotionally mess [them] up,” said Kara Dellacioppa, sociologist and chair of the California State University Dominguez Hills Sociology Department. “Humans aren’t wired to process that kind of [graphic] imagery all the time.”

According to a study by the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, evidence of large levels of exposure to real-life and movie violence can be associated with “diminished emotional stress, emotional empathy, and physiological reactivity, suggesting the presence of emotional and physiological desensitization.”

Although traumatic stories are often published in the media everyday, Dellacioppa says there is a difference between reading about the images versus seeing them.

“These graphic images grab your attention,” said Dellacioppa. “Seeing an image versus reading about something that happened is very different. People have very visceral reactions to seeing graphic images.”

As the use of social media continues to grow in popularity, so does the uptick in witnessing death.

“Death and violence are relative,” said Gaithri Fernando, Ph.D. in psychology. “Like ISIS, or cartels, severing heads off of people, there are websites where you can watch those videos.”

However, you don’t specifically have to go to certain websites to see graphic images. Multimedia outlets post images and videos of graphic content themselves.

Between June 17-26, the Aljazeera Plus Twitter account tweeted the video of Philando Castile’s death 11 times. This direct access to death through social media can have a serious affect on how social media users are desensitized to real-life death and violence.

There is a science behind how we process death and violence. According to Fernando, this science is called ‘habituation’.

“Habituation is when the brain takes info it has seen before and decides that it’s not a real-life imminent threat,” said Fernando. “The brain subconsciously calculates our proximity to danger.”

Fernando described habituation as this: Seeing a real-life video of death or violence shocks a person because their cognitive defenses are down. After seeing a lot of videos, the brain decides that there is no real danger to the body and normalizes them.

“With exposure to violence and death, and the latter, habituation is the brain’s tendency to constantly calculate how in-danger we are,” said Fernando. “The more we watch these real world disasters, the higher our level of physiological response is.”

Fernando also agrees that increased exposure to real-life death and violence can take a toll our psychological state.

“We may be traumatized by the exposure and not know it,” said Fernando. “We may start to develop symptoms of avoidance and dissociation, and these, in turn, could lead us to withdraw from those we feel close to, which begins a very negative spiraling cycle of diminished mental health, withdrawal, and isolation.”

As it turns out, the symptoms people may start to feel as a result of watching traumatic videos can be relative of a small case of PTSD.

“When we start to develop PTSD, we disassociate ourselves, or we shrug it off,  we isolate ourselves” said Fernando. “Constantly watching video feeds of death is not a good thing. The lessening to empathy, disassociation, isolation, avoidance, emotional reactions, that transform into physical outcomes, lead us to becoming more vulnerable to these impacts.”

Although Fernando agrees that constant exposure to traumatic videos can be detrimental for mental health, she believes that some exposure is still necessary.

“Some exposure to such episodes may provide us the opportunity to ‘exercise our empathy muscles’” said Fernando. “Complete shelter from such real-world pain is probably not beneficial to us either.”