Project HOPE is a global health and humanitarian organization, working side-by-side with local health workers and communities to save lives and improve the health and well-being of people around the world.
Today, at least half of U.S. adults get their news “at least sometimes” from social media, according to the Pew Research Center.
With a constant stream of information coming from every which way, though, it can be exceedingly difficult to sort through accurate and reliable news sources — and incredibly easy to share anything that crosses one’s path.
In the onslaught of global crises — like those in Palestine, Ukraine, The Democratic Republic of Congo, or Sudan — as well as divisive political climates and an unrelenting pandemic, misinformation is abundant.
And whether it’s real, fake, or a bit of a gray area, there is also a lot of graphic, unsettling content that is disseminated through our feeds regularly.
As much as it is important to bear witness to tragedy in the world, to take action and make a difference, it is also important to know our limits. And no, those limits do not include disregard or disengagement. But they do include intentionality, sustainability, and purpose.
We must identify and hold firm our digital boundaries to keep our humanity intact, to maintain momentum and energy, and to be alert and aware of what really matters.
What is the downside to getting news from social media?
First and foremost, it’s important to consider the role of media literacy when it comes to finding our news every day.
The Center for Media Literacy defines this as “a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print, to video, to the internet.”
The organization also stresses that building media literacy skills are necessary for “skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.”
As easy as it is to scroll through a singular feed to curate your information diet, consuming the news with intentionality takes effort. You have to seek out a variety of sources, actually digest and process information, and ask questions to keep your skills sharp.
And, while it’s an amazing tool that can be a great piece of your news routine, social media doesn’t exactly lend itself to that.
According to an article from Stanford Medicine, social media triggers the production of dopamine, a feel-good — and occasionally addictive — chemical that your brain releases when it learns something new or attention-grabbing.
Moreover, our social media apps are designed with an “infinite scroll,” meaning there is no end in sight to the amount of dopamine our brain can find when we spend hours feeding it new information.
As much as it may feel good (or, uh, numbing), this is detrimental to our mental health.
“We know that watching negatively valenced news can affect everyone’s mood, making them sad or anxious depending on the nature of that news,” Graham Davey, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Sussex, told Inverse.
Davey even went on to explain that this kind of news consumption can cause symptoms “very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.”
And if someone already lives in an environment with stress, conflict, or injustice, these experiences are even more likely.
“The more the viewer feels threatened by the visual images they see — if, for example, the images resonate with what is happening in their lives — the more likely they are to experience stress-related responses,” says Davey.
So, while new information and empathy are vital in staying abreast of global events, there is indeed a fine line in how to balance those levels — for our own sake, and for the sake of our activism.
But, how do I stay informed without being consumed by social media?
Check in with yourself.
We understand that reading and amplifying lived experiences and important information is a great way to be an advocate in times of crisis.
But we also know that when enormous tragedies take hold, it can be very easy to fall into a routine of doom-scrolling — and doom-sharing.
Instead of immediately contributing to the noise online, think of the ways you can create an internal review before you share something, or even before you read or watch something on social media.
One of the most simple things you can do is ask: Is this helping?
Katie Boué is an outdoorist and activist who talks about activism burnout on her social media pages and newsletter. In a newsletter she shared recently, Boué explained why Instagram is now the “last place” she goes, in times when she needs to process her feelings about the world.
“Sharing hot takes on the internet won’t save us,” she wrote. “That’s not to say that amplifying, sharing, [and] posting isn’t valuable.”
“But I fear we let performative displays of ‘our values’ outweigh the smaller, more meaningful, more impactful actions like having a tough conversation with a neighbor, calling your representatives every day, and even putting down the doom-scroll to stop absorbing more information and instead go back to that thing you usually spend your energy on to contribute good to this world.”
Boué has a point. While learning more through on-the-ground information shared online is crucial to our modern social justice movements, our doom-scroll dependence keeps us from actually doing the things that make us good global citizens in the first place.
To that end, one of the hardest pills to swallow is realizing that the things we share online might just be helping us process or feel like we’ve done something right when everything in the world feels so wrong — and not so much helping the people who are actually harmed by global crises.
There is nothing morally bad or wrong about sharing or processing in a public manner, especially when it feels like there’s not much else we can do to help others who are logistically very far away from us. And sharing new information can definitely help!
But how do we internally tell the difference between active amplification and passive performance?
While the answer to that question is different for everyone, we invite you to consider how you want to show up in the digital world, what your goals are in helping or amplifying an issue, and how you can do that in a sustainable and substantive way.
Consult situational reports.
It’s also perfectly acceptable to reconsider your media diet for certain periods of time.
Whether you’re overwhelmed by the graphic imagery you’re seeing on social media or just want to get your information in a more straightforward way, a great alternative is reading situational reports.
“These reports are usually found on the websites of UN agencies like UNICEF or OCHA or are reposted on platforms like ReliefWeb,” Bria Justus, the media relations manager at humanitarian organization Project HOPE, said.
“These reports offer a valuable way to grasp the current situation without being inundated with distressing images or heartbreaking quotes – which are important but can have a heavy emotional toll.”
In fact, Justus said that many reporters use these reports as foundational elements of their articles because they provide “straightforward, easy-to-digest information.”
While every report typically uses a slightly different format, Justus also recommends looking at the “highlights” sections of these reports, where you will likely find essential details about a crisis, like the number of displaced individuals, death tolls, urgent needs, and recent developments.
Reading a situational report will give you information from on-the-ground organizations and can share timely data without any fluff or commentary.
Once you’ve gotten that information, you can consider how much further you’d like to pursue it by gathering information from a variety of diverse news sources (like traditional newswires such as the Associate Press and Reuters; US-based media outlets; international sources; and independent media).
“It’s crucial to strike a balance between facts and human stories. While centering humanity is vital when dealing with crises, exclusively reading articles with sensational headlines or tragic stories can be emotionally draining,” Justus added.
“To maintain a healthy perspective, seek out both personal narratives and information about the situation at a broader scale.”
Make your breaks matter.
Of course, it’s important to take the occasional break from a near-constant barrage of media. But it’s also vital to use those interludes to think, reflect, and feel.
“Immersing yourself in the news constantly can become overwhelming. Instead of trying to know everything right when it happens, aim to consistently read or listen to a few articles or podcasts a day, and then step away,” Justus advised.
“Use the information you’ve gathered and act, whether that means contacting your local representatives, donating to a humanitarian organization, or sharing what you’ve learned with friends and family.”
The very human instinct you have to stay connected is a beautiful thing, but it can be put to use in other ways when you begin to feel overwhelmed.
Consider writing or journaling about your perspectives and experiences, talking with a loved one about the global heartbreak you’re witnessing, or maybe even head to the gym and take your rage out on a punching bag.
And like Justus said, use that offline time to make your voice heard or share your resources with those most impacted by global events.
Talk to other people in real life.
To maintain context, connection, and nuance, we need people — IRL.
Even if it’s just your roommate, a family member, or a good friend, meeting up with someone to talk is a great way to stay grounded in your humanity — and subsequently, the part of you that cares about things going on in the world.
You can talk about world events, or you can just ask the other person how they’re doing. Building empathy is vital in these moments that often seem so large and unfathomable. It might even feel silly or trivial to just talk to someone, to socialize “like normal.” But it helps.
Boué — the activist healing from burnout from earlier — wrote in her newsletter about what she thinks “advocacy should ultimately feel like.” She included a short list:
“Contributing to the solutions we want to see. Exercising creativity as a tool for doing good. Holding space for each other’s humanity and goopy feelings. Sitting together in heavy moments. Holding it all up together,” she detailed in her newsletter. “Strangers, friends, lovers, farmers, moms, daughters, together.”
That togetherness might even lead you to other people in your community who can work together with you to take action about the issue or crisis you care about.
Regardless, we hope extending a real, human hand will help you meet people with other relevant perspectives, build solidarity, or simply maintain empathy and community with those you love.
Balance the bad with a little bit of good.
We know that humans have a negativity bias, meaning the survival instincts in our brain — that have kept us alive for millions of years — are always vigilant for danger, or bad news.
It also means that our brains react more strongly to bad or negative news, as opposed to good news, or even neutral stimuli. So we have to work extra hard to make the good stuff stick.
In order to do that, we need to lean more deeply into the “good news,” or the hope and optimism that is harder to find in these scary global crises.
Essentially, a balanced media diet does not only include various, diverse sources of reporting — but it also means intentionally seeking out good news, too.
We also know that good news can be hard to find, especially in the face of war or conflict. Our advice? Start small. Embrace the moments of humanity you see in everyday interactions, and then work your way up to exciting updates in disbursement of humanitarian aid, or geopolitical milestones.
“It’s okay to be overwhelmed. Do your best to read what you can, but also give yourself the time and space to digest the jarring stats and information,” Justus, from Project HOPE, said.
“While it can feel like there is only ‘bad news’ available during a crisis, there are always people stepping up and offering help.”