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OPINION | Social Media and Mental Health: Seeing Through the Fog in the Midst of Conflict

by Danielle Marie Holland

I was overseas when the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted into a brutal October wave. Each morning, away from my community in Seattle, I awoke hours before my family to scroll through an avalanche of social media. Post after post of opinions, rage, graphic images, and downright horror. Information was moving torrentially and shared with similar speed, third-party posters having no time to look into the validity, sources, or evidence of what they were sharing. Major news outlets were moving too fast and making huge errors in the process, and journalists covering disinformation, such as Shayan Sardarizadeh for the BBC, have since been doing the rounds on viral posts containing false claims, conspiracy theories, and hateful content about the war.

Many of us in South Seattle have loved ones in Israel and/or loved ones in Gaza. Often, we use social media as a link — this incredible resource to connect us to the people and places we love. As disinformation, decontextualization, and propaganda increase across X, TikTok, and other sites, users need to assess what the sources are for the information they are consuming. So I conducted interviews with several University of Washington sources to get their perspective on social media usage. “I definitely recommend that people step aside from exclusive reliance on social media and turn to sources that have reporting on the ground, or that are being written by people who are deeply familiar with the situation, and to start piecing together the picture from those sources,” said Liora Halperin, professor of international studies and history at the University of Washington.

“I think it’s helpful to take a step back and recognize that this is a deeply troubling and horrifying reality that we’re witnessing, even without social media,” said Halperin. Amid high emotions and global protests as the war continues, “we need to recognize that there are some very profound differences of opinion and differences of perspective as far as which atrocities and which horrors are the ones that really need attention and require outrage.”

Social media creates constant access to these horrors, however real or manipulated, and platforms have long dropped the ball on responsible media moderation. In times of turmoil, violence, and destruction, this very tool that often acts to connect can lead to despair, feelings of helplessness, or bouts of hopelessness.

“With so much tragedy happening, we may be driven constantly to be checking news and craving information out of the region. However, it is essential to recognize the difference between being informed and being overwhelmed by the horrifying news coming from the Middle East,” said Mehvash Ali, a clinical psychologist at the UW Counseling Center and in private practice at WA Mental Health. “While it is important to have a good understanding of what is happening in the world, it is equally important to recognize the impact of constant engagement with social media on our mental health,” she said, noting how social media is intentionally designed and monetized to catch and keep our attention.

Ali created a social media usage map to illustrate the self-perpetuating cycle that many of us now find ourselves in. It starts with a basic human need for connection, which leads us to engage with social media to fulfill that need or simply to alleviate boredom. As we spend more and more time online, our in-person interactions decrease, leading to a growing sense of dissatisfaction or anxiety. This, in turn, intensifies feelings of distress and isolation. We also experience FOMO, the “fear of missing out” on events, conversations, or important information and content. And so, the cycle continues as the need for connection persists.

Graphic depicting the cycle of social media use beginning with a "need to feel connected" and ending with "fear of missing out."
Ali’s social media usage map captures a vicious cycle: seeking connection leads to increased social media use, diminishing real-life interactions, and escalating feelings of dissatisfaction, distress, and FOMO, which, in turn, drives us back online in search of fulfillment. (Map: Mehvash Ali, courtesy of Danielle Marie Holland)

Ali counsels people to gauge whether their time online is useful or has become unhealthy. She suggests using these questions to evaluate your social media engagement and to see if adjustments need to be made to prioritize your well-being and mental health.

  • Are you spending more time online than in social circles in person?
  • Do you experience increased worry and sadness when on social media?
  • Are you often distracted by social media when at school or work?
  • Have you noticed reduced time for self-care or self-reflection due to social media use?
  • Do you find yourself delaying sleep due to social media use?
  • Are you frequently distracted by social media use when in the company of family or friends?
  • Do you feel pressure to post online?
  • Have you engaged in risky or inauthentic behaviors for likes on social media?
  • Do you find yourself continuing to scroll through comments on social media posts even if they are increasing distress?

“We might consider unfollowing, muting, or deleting accounts or groups that we find cause us persistent distress,” said Z Lev Cunningham, a mental health specialist at the School of Social Work at UW. “We can always search for those handles and re-follow at a later time. This practice has brought me considerable relief in these last weeks, allowing me to curate my feeds to get the information I want and skip most of what I don’t.” Cunningham seeks news from specific news media sources and doesn’t only rely on social media feeds. Users can also set goals for limiting time spent on social media apps. I downloaded a social media blocker onto my phone and computer to support my efforts to reduce time spent online.

Cunningham suggests “creating a little more space from scrolling” by choosing to keep social media or phone-free zones “in bed, when walking outdoors, on the bus or a run, with family, or in the bathroom.” Ali recommends establishing a self-reward system to stick with goals, turning off notifications and alerts to reduce the urge to constantly check your phone, or removing apps from your phone to limit your overall usage. When posting online, deliberate if something would be better shared in person rather than online.

These strategies can help you regain a sense of control over your social media usage and prioritize connections in your local community. Pause to reflect on what benefits knowing all the details about an event or situation serves. For some, it might be enough to know broad details without getting into the specifics of every shocking development, alarming image, or hundreds of personal encounter stories. Set the boundaries you need for how much information you wish to consume. “We have to carefully judge which sites to follow and unfollow sites that increase anxiety even if they are in line with our own opinions and values,” said Ali.

“We have tools that are useful for identifying misinformation,” said Halperin. “Pay attention to what the source is and seek out original sources rather than items shared without attribution.” When you feel helpless with the state of the world, remember there are actions within your control. You can make a positive impact by engaging in activities that bring you joy and connection. By leaning into your community, giving yourself breathing room, and establishing the boundaries you need, you can tend to yourself and then extend that care to action beyond.

Looking for more English-language resources to consult? The University of Washington Middle East Center has posted a list of solid journalistic sources that may help readers understand patterns of coverage and make sense of the perspectives animating different groups involved or invested in the unfolding events.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Danielle Marie Holland is an essayist, transformative writer, and podcaster. Danielle is a regular contributing writer at Parents Magazine, and her work has been published in DAME, Insider, Rewire News Group, and beyond. Her book A String of Apologies is forthcoming via Hinton Publishing.

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