In an era dominated by digital technology and relentless connectivity, the ongoing conflict in Israel has given rise to a lesser-discussed but profoundly significant issue – digital trauma. It raises critical questions about the extent to which individuals can be held responsible for their media consumption choices, especially when the digital landscape is designed to captivate and influence them.
The journey into the digital world is often involuntary. A typical workday is interrupted by a mindless click on the Instagram app, where the stories of a new mother sharing recipes quickly transition into something far more disturbing. Instead of wholesome pasta bolognese, the screen reveals the image of a ZAKA ׂ(the Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification) volunteer. Mesmerized, I cannot press pause or exit the app as he recounts his experiences – how he came across the body of a woman lying on her stomach. The description of her mutilated stomach, a knife lodged in a removed fetus, and a gunshot wound to her head is haunting. In the short video, he described the scene and his thoughts: “I tried to figure out the order in which things had taken place.” This woman represents just one of the many casualties in the ongoing conflict that began on October 7. Videos depicting gruesome atrocities, often recorded in real-time, have flooded social networks and instant messaging platforms, leaving us exposed to horrific content without control.
The foundational mechanisms of social media, geared towards promoting sensational content and automatically playing videos, have left many, both in Israel and around the world, unable to escape the horrors they encounter. On Friday, a day before the war started, I attempted to distance myself from my phone by observing a technological Shabbat. However, as I reconnected with my phone, I was immediately inundated with the horrors that had unfolded in Israel over the weekend. The fear of missing out and the perceived necessity to stay informed tethered me to the screen, where I spent hours desperately trying to grasp the ungraspable. My screentime app pushed a notification, letting me know I’ve spent over 4 hours on my phone. I was surprised it wasn’t 12 hours.
What I witnessed has left an indelible mark on my psyche. Though I reside far from the conflict, in the United States, I found myself unable to sleep, plagued by nightmares, and startled by the slightest sounds. I became anxious and on edge, exhibiting the classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. The emotional trauma I felt was akin to what the residents of kibbutzim and cities close to the Gaza Strip experienced – as if I were there with them. The need to escape watching the horrors is compelling, yet running seems impossible.
It is essential to recognize that personal responsibility for media consumption is far from a straightforward matter. The digital realm is governed by algorithms that drive us towards content that aligns with our existing beliefs and preferences, making it increasingly challenging to disengage. The overwhelming power of environmental design should be considered. Just as we might find ourselves surrounded by fast food chains and ultimately choose to consume such food, we, too, may open social media platforms and be bombarded with violent content, leaving us with little choice but to engage.
Social media companies and governments benefit from the prolonged screen time we devote to them. They gain revenue from the technology industry’s tax contributions, while individuals find themselves isolated in a daily battle to regulate their media consumption. The cost of this battle is becoming unmanageable.
As the Israeli conflict rages on, we must address the harsh realities of digital trauma and the complexity of media consumption. Blaming individuals for their emotional responses to traumatic content oversimplifies a complex issue and diverts our attention from the systemic factors that expose us to such distressing material. It is time to demand greater transparency and accountability from digital platforms and create an environment where individuals can make informed choices while respecting their right to engage with the world on their own terms. Only by acknowledging the collective responsibility and advocating for change can we hope to alleviate the digital trauma inflicted upon us in the relentless stream of information during times of conflict.