War porn: Excessively consuming horrific war footage can trigger PTSD

A cognitive psychologist elaborates on our compulsion to watch these videos, their function in our lives, the significance of abstaining from them, and how to engage in enlightening activities in their absence
Dr. Ofer Moner|
For over ten days, we've found ourselves in an emotionally tumultuous state, fluctuating between profound sadness, confusion, pride, and anxiety. Our eyes are glued to the news channels, even as we simultaneously scour social media, seeking any bit of information that might bring some semblance of order to this chaos and provide a modicum of peace of mind.
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We're facing one of the most challenging mental states - extreme uncertainty. Regrettably, this is a situation we're all too familiar with. We encountered it just three years ago when a global pandemic swept across the world and completely disrupted our lives. Even though the circumstances were completely different, we were desperately seeking any piece of information to quell the tempest brewing in our souls. Most of us remain unaware this incessant need for updates can become highly addictive.
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בתים בכפר עזה
בתים בכפר עזה
A destroyed house in Kfar Aza
(Photo: Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
In a desperate need to regain control over amid an uncontrollable situation, many of us have found ourselves consuming shocking footage that captures the horrific acts committed by Hamas. This exposure could be driven by curiosity, an earnest wish to support national advocacy efforts, or the hope to spot friends and family in the videos — a large number of Israelis have viewed these clips.
It's undeniable that the footage can be gripping. The draw of shock and curiosity are well-documented psychological phenomena and entirely natural responses. The allure of such imagery is reflected in works like "War Porn" by photographer Christoph Bangert, which comprises deeply disturbing images from conflict zones, evoking the grimness of snuff films displaying murder or self-harm. As captivating and potentially addictive as mainstream pornography, war porn exercises a similar fascination. However, it's crucial to resist the urge to watch these videos.

What are the potential damages from watching these videos?

Driven by curiosity and addiction, our minds convince themselves that they can cope with the harsh visuals and narratives. Thoughts like "I must witness this to grasp their cruelty" or "I need to watch this to know what to share" are ways our minds justify this craving for information, hoping it might help make sense of our chaotic reality. However, our minds are not truly equipped to process such atrocities, and viewing these videos could potentially lead to secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Don't be misled by the term "secondary"; it simply indicates that the trauma source is indirect, not experienced first-hand. This in no way diminishes the fact that repeated exposure to distressing videos can indeed cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Moreover, viewing such content does not grant us genuine control over our reality; The control supposedly gain is a mirage, an small oasis in a desert of trauma.

Why is it these videos do not aid in Israel’s advocacy efforts?

While many argue that these brutal videos are crucial for Israeli advocacy, showcasing the ruthlessness of the enemy, it's important to note that for every disturbing video we share, the opposing side can retaliate with equally shocking content. Furthermore, in an era dominated by misinformation and artificial intelligence, reality and objective facts reside within the realm of purgatory, floating about in the ether, thus validating authenticity becomes a daunting task, and those resistant to persuasion will remain so, regardless of the images presented.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Psychology reveals a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. For instance, studies have shown that graphic warnings on cigarette packs can increase the likelihood of quitting, but they do not alter the underlying beliefs and attitudes of smokers. Should such images be employed for explanatory purposes, it would be both possible and advisable to obscure the most graphic of details.
Great advocacy can certainly be achieved sans the graphic videos. One can freely integrate images and graphics while steering clear of “war porn”. Yes, a picture is normally worth a thousand words, but every rule has its exceptions.

How do you mitigate the damages caused by watching?

The best advice is to refrain from viewing such distressing videos. If you've already seen some and are experiencing any symptoms, partake in a visually engaging distraction, like watching a film, a television series, or playing a video game. Although physical activities, music, and reading can be excellent means of disengaging from the current situation, they might not be as effective in this context. By focusing on a screen-based activity, we aim to replace troubling visuals with more benign ones, thereby confusing the experiences and making it harder for the brain to form a visual trauma.
Our brain processes the day's events during sleep, and by introducing a variety of harmless visual stimuli, we feed it non-threatening information.
The most important thing is not to go to sleep with trauma-inducing stimuli firmly planted into your consciousness.

How to disengage from excessive news consumption?

Scientifically speaking, the propensity to develop an addiction has genetic underpinnings, leading to varying susceptibilities among individuals. Some are more inclined towards addictive behaviors, while others are less so. If you have been or are currently addicted to something (like cigarettes, mild drugs, alcohol, and so forth), your odds of becoming addicted to news consumption or video viewing are elevated.
ד"ר עופר מונרDr. Ofer Moner
It's beneficial to occasionally step away from the news and engage in alternative activities such as outdoor excursions, board games, physical exercise, reading, strolling, or enjoying a quality film or television series. Upholding some form of routine for both children and adults is crucial. The foundation of national resilience lies in the mental fortitude of each individual.
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