Humans behind headlines: Combating societal desensitization

Lili Hakimi

In the U.S., 93 percent of adults get some form of news online. We live in a day and age where news is more accessible than ever – with one click of our phones we are exposed to events from all around the world instantly. Having so much information at our immediate convenience results in news being consumed at a higher and faster rate than ever before. Unfortunately, continuous and rapid coverage also exposes us to constant violence, creating a cycle where events can not be fully internalized and processed before we are informed of the next tragedy. This pattern is not conducive to building lasting societal empathy. The global rise in violence along with mass media consumption has resulted in desensitization, causing us to become emotionally indifferent to the struggles of others.

In an article published by the American Psychological Association, Dr. Jurell Riley, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, compares desensitization to trauma and calluses. ​

“Think about it like this, [when] we work with our hands a lot, we develop these calluses, and it helps you become desensitized and numb. It’s the same thing with your mind. We keep re-experiencing these traumatic situations, these shootings, and we’re building these calluses on our mind,” Riley said.

The problem with desensitization is that it normalizes crises, so  what was once shocking is now ordinary. Within the first three weeks of January 2023, America had already seen 40 mass shootings.

That’s more shootings than days we have had in the year. While each event is equally horrific, having to process 40 shootings in less than a month significantly lowers the emotional impact, especially for those not directly affected.

Desensitization is a natural response to traumatic events, in fact, it is a biological defense mechanism to adapt to trauma by not fully internalizing events. Dr. Bruce Harry, an associate professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Forensic Psychiatry at the University of Missouri, says that when overwhelmed, our central nervous system is inhibited. In other words, our brains have not evolved to continuously process and compute information at the rate it is made available to us today.

Art by Carsen Goltz

However, one theory suggests we actually have a greater fear of violent events and are not simply ignoring them (though that could be a coping mechanism).This concept is backed by research from the American Psychological Association, which reported a rise in stress levels related to personal safety. When asked about what adds stress to their lives over the past decade, 31 percent of Americans said mass shootings and gun violence.

Despite this, instances of school shootings have received less visceral reactions today than in the past. The shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 was one of the first mass school shootings and sent shock waves through the country. A survivor of the shooting, Craig Nason, later wrote about the impact the event had. 

“At the time, Columbine was considered a once-in-a-generation type of tragedy — one that few other people in our country would ever have to contend with. If only that were true,” Nason said.

If this cycle continues, we will paralyze any advancement in gun reform; once we become apathetic towards violence, the need for change will not be recognized. 

How can we combat desensitization while practicing empathy? We can start by setting boundaries, particularly by limiting our intake of violent media to avoid compassion fatigue. We can build meaningful relationships and reach out to others to talk about a tragedy and process them completely. More specifically, we must practice emotional endurance and acknowledge the humanity behind these events and headlines. When you find yourself unable to have an empathetic response to a tragedy, try adopting a “think small” mindset and read individual stories to first build empathy with a single person.