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War (Online)! What is it Good For?

Americans are viciously divided on the most significant international conflict in recent history. But instead of taking our gripes to the battlefield, we’re duking it out on X and Facebook. What has the online discourse on politics done to us as a society? And how is the 24-hour news cycle impacting our mental health? 


 


Back in the “good old days” of the pre-Internet era, the average American could mitigate their involvement in international affairs. If watching war footage after a long day’s work wasn’t your cup of tea, you could simply change the channel. This is still true, of course, regarding our television sets. But in the great information age, almost every human being walks the Earth with an incessant source of world news attached at the hip. The simple act of opening a notification can plunge us into the midst of a bloody conflict halfway across the planet. Even worse, to scroll idly by without providing an opinion is nearly a war crime in itself. With a constant stream of information and social pressure to take a stand, it’s becoming harder and harder to escape global politics. The words “I don’t follow the news”, in 2023, have become impossible to say.


 


While there are certainly some positive aspects to our 24-hour news access, the impact that it has had on mental health is inarguably negative. According to the American Psychological Association, more than 50% of Americans say that the news causes them stress. And it isn’t hard to understand why; when our daily scrolling exposes us to dozens of depressing headlines, it’s human nature to feel dejected. Even worse, the prevalence of news on platforms like X and Instagram has birthed a peculiar emotional rollercoaster of content. The average user can see a cute dog picture, a video of bombs being dropped in a war zone, and a friend’s selfie with their cup of coffee in the span of a minute. How do our nervous systems cope with such a rapid cycle of emotions? Is it putting all of us on edge? Or, perhaps worse, is it making us all desensitized to violence? It’s still too early for definitive answers, but the fact remains that we are being psychologically altered by an inundation of news and current events.


 


As politics and social issues migrate to the Internet, the rants and raves that we’ve previously expressed in the privacy of our own homes are in hot pursuit. Have you ever felt compelled enough by a social media post to leave your opinion? Most of us could probably admit to the occasional “comment section” spat, whether it’s a debate over pizza toppings or an all-caps screaming match about the war in Israel. 


Nowadays, it’s become frighteningly easy to make our stances known, to the point that it’s uncommon to have never spoken your mind on an online issue. This is especially evident in Gen Z (of which I am a member); social activism is as trendy to twenty-somethings as baggy jeans and Taylor Swift. In recent weeks, I’ve seen dozens of acquaintances share posts that say, in essence, “If you are silent on the news in Israel, you are complicit in genocide”. That’s the kind of messaging that will light a fire under you; who would ever want to be complicit? The result of this is, predictably, a deluge of retweets and reposts from everyone and their mother, whether or not they fully understand what they’re decrying. Peer pressure is an age-old concept, but when it comes in the form of “state your opinion on Instagram or you’re a bad person”, it’s even more likely to stress out our psyches. Pair that with graphic pictures of war-torn villages on your morning commute; how couldn’t you have a smile on your face?


 


Obviously, being aware of global news is important. In our ever-changing world, there is always a crisis to attend to, a problem to fix. Being aware of the news makes us better citizens; it develops our empathy, our critical thinking, and our political viewpoints. If no one paid attention, it would be incredibly easy for the people in power to exploit us and commit crimes against humanity. However, it may just be that overexposure to current events is equally as damaging as total ignorance. We only have so much individual power to influence global politics and avoid unspeakable tragedies. While it may feel empowering to declare your stances on social media, your limitations as an average civilian could be worsening the effects of so much news absorption. 


 


Reading about mass shootings and terrorist attacks as you make the commute into a crowded city could heighten your anxiety and put you on edge; it could similarly make you feel powerless to prevent the onslaught of violence that appears in the headlines. And all of these nervous, angry, hopeless feelings don’t simply disappear with a click of a more positive post. It simmers inside, and the more we’re exposed to brief flashes of terrible news, the fewer places we have to store it. 


 


So, what does this all mean for humanity? Frankly, the results are still pending. The internet is relatively new to us as a society, and as we navigate its integration into our daily lives, we’re being forced to contend with entirely novel psychological issues. Regardless of the incredible things that we have been able to achieve with technology, one of its most prevalent downsides is its impact on our psyches. And as the war in Israel continues to spread into overseas violence and hate, Americans are once again feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders with every second they spend on their phones. Perhaps it is turning us into activists for peace, but I doubt we’ll emerge as saner, happier human beings. 


 


 


Edited by Victoria Muzio


 


Photo by Rishabh Sharma on Unsplash


   


 


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