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‘Compassion fatigue’ from hyper-exposure to negative news growing problem, scholar warns

Technology puts bad news in forefront all day, everyday 

Technology has created a constant flood of negative news on the social media platforms people check all day that is causing many to “simply tune out.”

So says psychologist Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“It’s true that we’re overwhelmed by information,” McNaughton-Cassill said in an interview with The College Fix. “I think probably you have to turn it off sometimes or we’d all be depressed. There’s so much information that’s negative.”

The scholar said “compassion fatigue” — or negative emotional responses to media — is nothing new, and in fact has been studied in first responders for years. Yet now it’s become relevant to just about anyone who watches the news or engages with social media.

“You can use ‘compassion fatigue’ a couple ways,” McNaughton-Cassill said. “You can say people are just tired of hearing bad news about anything and they are selfish and entitled and they are tuning out. Or you can say that there is so much negative information and so much conflicting information that a lot of people are narrowing down and saying ‘I just can’t manage this so I’m going to look at the stuff I know about.’”

The American Institute of Stress defines compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatization, as the emotional response or strain of exposure that can result from working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events; it can occur from exposure to one traumatic event or as the result of the cumulative effects of witnessing trauma.

McNaughton-Cassill mentioned the increase in social media use, especially among students, as a primary cause of increased exposure to traumatic events, like shootings and natural disasters.

However, she cautioned viewing social media as the cause.

“I’m not sure that it’s social media then, I think it’s exposure,” she said.

Increased access to news via social media has increased access to traumatic information, locally, regionally, and globally, she said.

“The idea is, how does a rational person with empathy deal with all of the news that we’re flooded with and at the same time not become hopeless or overwhelmed? And then how do you find ways to solve those things that really do concern you,” McNaughton-Cassill said.

“The other part of the modern news media is that we get so much information from places that are really far away so there’s no sense that you can personally fix the kids who are hurt in Syria. That’s not normal for human experience. Because up until the last century, the things you saw that were bad, you were there in person and so you couldn’t necessarily fix it but you had a role to play,” she said.

Without a role to play, people feel helpless and begin to develop compassion fatigue.

With the prevalence of traumatic news stories shared via social media, what can be done to decrease risk of developing compassion fatigue? McNaughton-Cassill suggests that people be more thoughtful about their media consumption.

“I argue that people should think more about what works for them and how much [news] they need. Some people are very visual and they see a bad picture and they can’t get it out of their head. So they really might be the person who wants to listen to a podcast to get their news, whereas someone else wants to skim an article quickly, or a third person wants to watch [their news]. You have to kind of know what style of news works for you and decide: where is the point of diminishing returns?”

“If you are turning off the news periodically because you need a break or you’re overwhelmed, that’s probably a self-protective thing.”

MORE: Social media policy forbids posts that ‘inflict emotional distress’

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About the Author
Emily Fromke is a junior at Wheaton College (IL) where she studies political science and economics. She is the editor in chief of The Wheaton Record.

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