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Seeing violent news can increase anxiety, fear and desensitization


Hate crimes against minority groups are also reportedly on the rise

On social media, news is instant, and can spread like wildfire. One moment you can be scrolling on TikTok and like a video of a puppy; the next you might see someone shot and killed. Young people are especially at risk of constant exposure to violence on social media, which can cause anxiety, fear, and emotional desensitization.

According to The Marshall Project, hate crimes against minoritized groups are on the rise, especially against Asian Americans and LGBTQ+ people. Black Americans experienced the greatest reported number of hate crimes in both 2020 and 2021, up 14% within one year. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter and Asian Lives Matter campaigns, some of these incidents were shared on social media. For example, the asphyxiation death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of a police officer was shared across various platforms, and witnessed by thousands of young people.

Indiana University Media School professor Andrew Weaver said the context of violence young people are exposed to plays a big role in its desensitization. If young people are exposed to violence where they see the harm being done (i.e., see the consequences), then feelings of anxiety and fear may develop. But if young people witness the same violence unfolding without consequences, they may be desensitized.

“So you see, the medium is providing information, just the same way as we would collect information and our real-world sorts of interactions,” Weaver said. “And so it really matters whether that information is glorifying the violence or if the violence has been punished.”

When news platforms post violent news to inform and educate their audience, the violence is often shown with consequences, such as the perpetrator being punished, or the implications of the harm being caused. Watchers also have expectations of seeing such news on their feeds.

If ordinary users post about violent news, they mght display graphic images and videos without adding trigger warnings. This can shock iviewers, and create heightened feelings of anxiety and fear. Certain users also glorify the violence in videos and images, which can lead to audience desensitization. This can also promote misogyny, rape culture, gun violence, hate crimes and speech, and much more.

Rutgers sophomore Jadyn Berrian says she often sees violent news on her social media feed. On the morning of our interview, she saw a news post about Black teenager Ralph Yarl being shot in the head by his 84-year-old neighbor Andrew Lester.

Berrian said constant exposure to violence on social media increases her anxiety and fear, especially when the news is close to home.

“Especially even like seeing… stuff about Black Lives Matter, still kind of happening with young black men and black people being shot, like that gives me a lot of anxiety as… a black girl in this world,” she said.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, the United States saw at least 656 reported mass shootings in 2023, among them the February 2023 mass shooting at Michigan State University. When Berrian saw news of this on her social media feed, she said it made her feel scared about living on a college campus. She said a part of the anxiety she feels when reading the news is the fear of how dangers, such as mass shootings, can affect her and her family’s safety

Rutgers University psychology professor Maurice Ellias said one of the implications of constant exposure to violence is a heightened sense that they or their loved ones are being threatened.

“It’s important to note that mid/late adolescence is characterized by some normal cognitive developmental processes, such as catastrophizing, that can heighten a sense of personal threat as a result of exposure. It increases likelihoods of fear of harm, potential social isolation, or even pre-emptive action,” Ellias said.

Desensitization to violence is one process, a part of many that young people’s brains may use to adapt to their environment. Ellias said a person’s brain may become desensitized to violence in order to properly function, which does not mean they do not care or are in denial, but more so their brain is trying to protect them from harm and fear.

Manda Gatto, Assistant Director of Community-Based Services at CAPS, said constant exposure to violent news could also create a feeling of powerlessness in young people. For example, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement during the pandemic increased exposure to the violence and injustices committed against the Black community. While people could do their part by supporting Black-owned businesses, signing petitions, and donating to Black causes, many felt unsure if their impact as one person was enough

Gatto said social media can be helpful in spreading awareness, but can also be traumatic for young people to watch, especially if they belong to the community harmed.

“On the one hand, it’s good to raise awareness, but on the other hand, it’s like traumatizing…to sort of see those images over and over again. And so there’s fear and then also, I think, for some people just like rage about…the state of things,” she said.

As a result of being constantly exposed to violent images on social media, young people can experience vicarious trauma, also referred to as secondary trauma. This is defined by the Vicarious Trauma Institute as “indirect exposure to trauma through a first-hand account or narrative of a traumatic event.”

According to the British Medical Institute, healthcare professionals such as doctors, are likely to experience this form of trauma, because they empathetically engage with trauma sufferers. Symptoms of vicarious trauma are detachment from reality, loss of hope, feelings of rage, and experiencing shame or bystander guilt. It is possible for young people to experience this form of trauma and symptoms as they are constantly exposed to violent images where others endure severe trauma.

What can be done to reduce the rate of young people’s exposure to violence on social media?

First, social media platforms should be held accountable for requiring trigger warnings for all videos that display violence. This gives users the opportunity to decide for themselves if they  want to be exposed to that type of content. Second, power also rests in young people’s hands. To decrease exposure, young people can unfollow specific pages that typically post violent content or select “uninterested” on posts that display violence. Berrian said she follows news pages on X and Instagram, but leaves TikTok as a fun and entertaining outlet.

Those experiencing anxiety, fear, stress, or emotional desensitization from constant exposure to violence on social media are advised to reach out to friends, family, counseling services or an emergency hotline for mental health assistance and support.


Resources Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Call 988

Rutgers Counseling, ADAP & Psychiatric Services (CAPS): Health Services: 848–932–7402, Counseling Services: 848–932–7884

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Call 800–950–6264 or text “Helpline” to 62640

United Way 211: Call 211 to speak with a representative for mental health resources and Treatment

Works Cited

“Counseling Services.” Student Health,

“Gun Violence Archive.” Gun Violence Archive,

“Helping the World’s Heroes Reveal, Release, Reconnect.” Vicarious Trauma Institute —
Helping the World’s Heroes to Reveal, Release, Reconnect,

“Home: Nami: National Alliance on Mental Illness.” NAMI,

Li, Weihua, and Jamiles Lartey. “New FBI Data Shows More Hate Crimes. These Groups Saw
the Sharpest Rise.” The Marshall Project, The Marshall Project, 25 Mar. 2023,

Mehlmann-Wicks, Jackie. “Vicarious Trauma: Signs and Strategies for Coping.” The British
Medical Association Is the Trade Union and Professional Body for Doctors in the UK., British
Medical Association, 17 Jan. 2022,

Meredith E. Gansner, MD; “‘The Internet Made Me Do It’-Social Media and Potential for
Violence in Adolescents.” Psychiatric Times, MJH Life Sciences, 5 Sept. 2017,

Mrug, Sylvie et al. “Emotional Desensitization to Violence Contributes to Adolescents’ Violent
Behavior.” Journal of abnormal child psychology vol. 44,1 (2016): 75–86. doi:10.1007/s10802–015–9986-x

Salahieh, Nouran, et al. “Recovery of Black Teen Allegedly Shot by White Homeowner after
Ringing Wrong Doorbell Is a Miracle, Attorney Says.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 Apr.

“Social Media Violence.” Social Media Victims Law Center, 14 Apr. 2023,

Wayne, Teddy. “The Trauma of Violent News on the Internet.” The New York Times, The New
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About the Author

Madison Brooks

Professor: David Love
Class: Media, Movements and Community Engagement

Since the pandemic, I've noticed a proliferation of violent news on social media. Many videos and posts lacked a disclaimer option. I decided to research the implications of this issue. I discovered young adults who follow news pages on social media often expect to view violent news on their feeds, which can provoke anxiety and fear. Exposure to violent news that is glorified or does not have trigger warnings can lead to desensitization in young adults. This is the brain's response to protect itself from harm. I also found myself experiencing anxiety and fear at first, but the more violent news I was exposed to, the more desensitized I became. I realized that social media must be held accountable to protect users from violent news. Young adults also have the power to control what pages they follow and the content they want to see, which helps prevent exposure to violent news.