by Bella Ishanyan and Matan Josephy, Centerfold Editors
photo illustration by Eva Shimkus
Fearing the possibility that she could encounter somebody with whom she disagrees, Mia Katz* actively avoids discussing the Russo-Ukrainian War with her peers. With close family both in Russia and actively fighting or hiding in Ukraine, Katz said that she sees this conflict through a much more personal lens than many others in the South community.
“I’ve heard my friends make jokes about this, and it’s really not okay. They don’t think this is as big as it is,” she said. “My half brother is in Ukraine fighting right now, and there’s no way for me to contact him. My dad [is also in Ukraine and I] can’t contact him, and it’s really hard knowing that. My friends don’t realize that I’ve been living every day just hoping that my family is still alive.”
Because of the tumultuous outpour of social media posts and breaking news notifications, many teens with no direct connection to conflicts like the Russo- Ukrainian War initially found themselves extremely distressed once the conflict erupted. However, perpetual media coverage allows for previously anxious teens to go numb to the traumatic news they hear as time went on.
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An Unstoppable Wave
Such a phenomenon extends past just the war in Ukraine. As teenagers contend with a world compounded by a vast number of cataclysmic events, senior Erik Gee said he finds his peers more disconnected from current events amidst neverending streams of information.
“People have definitely become numb to it,” he said. “[For example], when Ukraine was getting invaded, I feel like everyone was thinking to the extreme, but now it’s just another thing in the news. I’m not trying to downplay the conflict, obviously, but it’s not something that people are terribly concerned over.”
The vast amount of news cover- age on tragic events is not unique to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Throughout the lifetime of many Americans in Generation Z, international animosity has dominated media coverage. Consequently, teenagers today approach conflict with more apathy than preceding generations.
After the 9/11 attacks, news coverage increased focus on global conflict, a rise in terrorism and an ever-more destabilized global scene. Paired with heightened political polarization, this trend has caused news coverage to become hyper-focused on bad news ― an effect that, as a study led by Professor of Economics at Dartmouth University Bruce Sacerdote found, has also been found within coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Media in the United States, the authors found, focused on coverage of bad news throughout the pandemic to a significantly larger extent than the rest of the world.
Sophomore Charles Kouspakian said that news coverage of cataclysmic events around the world is determined by the interest of its listeners.
“Since war isn’t really a constant thing, when a conflict is officially declared, there’s a lot of news coverage on it. Everybody always tries to get what’s going on out there for a couple of weeks or for a couple months,” he said. “But as the war continues, you see coverage starts to decline a little bit and they start moving on to other things that are going around in the world. … It follows a trendline until people just stop paying attention to it anymore.”
History teacher Kyle Stark also said that young people may find themselves less able to fully process tragedies.
“The amount of information [available to young people] makes it even harder to find stability in the world,” he said.
The constant, unrestricted access to news that came with the advent of digital media catalyzed a difficulty for people to shut down their minds and process current events, history teacher and department chair Jennifer Morrill said. ― an issue Morrill said has been present for the youngest generations throughout their lives.
While this anxiety may feel abstract, concrete changes to news media in the past three decades have greatly contributed to the sensationalization of news.
Prior to the popularization of cable television in the United States, on-air news outlets were limited, so the vast
majority of media consumers had the same outlook on large stories.
First made available in the United States in 1948, cable television transformed the landscape of news media by encouraging competition among up-and-coming media companies, Matthew Baum, the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications at the Harvard Kennedy School, said.
“In that environment of fragmentation, you can’t be all things to all people anymore,” he said. “You can’t count on people staying tuned if they’re not interested in what you’re showing, so the news no longer has a monopoly when it’s on the air, which means either you do something else entirely or you find a way to make the news more entertaining. That’s when you start seeing things like soft news and more sensationalized coverage of things like foreign policy.”
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Decades later, when the Internet arrived into the mainstream, news outlets turned to ever-faster coverage that brought news to viewers within seconds as they sought to compete with ever-shortening spans of attention. As a result, the news coverage of today is a stark contrast from that of several decades ago, Baum said.
“Everything becomes shorter, and you have to try and find ways to get people to consume the message, maybe without sound or in a few seconds.”
These changes impact the way that people view news, and the differences in thought between generations are apparent to those who have experienced both. According to Stark, members of Generation Z have adopted a more pessimistic mindset than preceding generations.
“I do see Generation Z as being … a little bit more world weary,” he said. “There’s this acceptance that things are really bad.”
As a consequence, young Americans have grown to view conflict around the globe with a greater degree of detachment than previous generations ― all the while having greater access to instantaneous information about events around the globe.
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The Negative Spiral
Research shows that young people in particular are found to be less engrossed in current events. Baum said this was so due to the sheer quantity of cataclysmic news coverage being fed to them constantly.
“Most of the data I’ve seen shows that young people are less interested in news than prior generations,” he said. “There are a variety of reasons for that … but the volume, magnitude and scope of the badness that you guys are fed is unprecedented, except for maybe during one of the world wars, but it’s really extraordinary. Why wouldn’t you want to look at cat videos if you turn on the news and it’s just existential extermination [everywhere]?”
However, Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School Dr. Mel Feany said that the volume of negative content
may have the opposite effect.
“If you get more information about
events or you hear more about people who are being affected by conflict and get more granular detail on the things that are really going wrong in their lives and how they’re truly affected, that might make you more empathetic,” she said. “That might give you a better picture of what they’re really experiencing and might in fact, increase your sensitization.”
Lilit DerKevorkian, a first-year doctoral student in clinical psychology at William James College, said that though there is not much of a scientific understanding about the topic of media desensitization, there is research that proves both points. She said that the issue is too complex for pure data to describe.
“There is some research that shows that, yes, more exposure will lead to desensitization, but I really think it
depends on the population and what crisis is actually going on at the time,” she said. “Desensitization is a really interesting thing because while it’s really easy to say ‘Yes, we are desensitized,’ just because there’s so much going on and it’s really overwhelming, we are so sensitive to everything that happens. It manifests and we express ourselves in different ways.”
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According to Feany, neurologically, the way people express themselves while processing a distressing event such as war is distinct due to the difference between trauma and everyday short and long-term memories, whether one is experiencing it firsthand or learning about it in the news.
“There’s a part [of the brain] more responsible for short-term memory and parts more responsible for long-term memory and then there’s a special relationship of yet another part of the brain, the amygdala, to memories that are traumatic in nature that have an emotional flavor to them, particularly negative emotional flavor,” she said.
In addition, Feany said that one’s history and affiliation with certain traumatic events may cause a reaction that falls on a broad spectrum of emotional responses.
“The more closely related you are to the conflict, particularly if you’re experiencing something yourself, the more likely you are going to have significant emotional associations and emotional context provided to those memories,” she said. “The more related it is to you, the closer it is physically to you, or perhaps someone you may know, the more likely it is to engage the emotional centers.”
Constant access to unprecedented quantities of news creates an emotional toll on young people, which DerKevorkian said may affect Generation Z negatively
“I don’t think that [young people] are necessarily given the resources or the outlets to talk about how all that makes you feel,” he said. “That speaks to the fact that the rates of depression and anxiety are increasing in young people.”
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Bias on Conflict
Beyond just desensitization, the constant media coverage regarding negative or cataclysmic effects may come to reshape how young people actively define the world around them. Senior Yarden Shestopal said that the ongoing coverage of the war in Ukraine directly led him to reshape of his perception of the nation.
“Now, in my mind, when I hear the word Ukraine, I don’t think about Ukrainian culture or food or anything like that,” he said. “I think about the invasion, and it’s sad because the shock wears off, and then the people who are affected by the conflict become defined by the conflict.”
The constant buzz of news coverage may also intensify a disconnect to plights of those so far away, especially for those who grew up in South’s prominent Russian or Ukrainian communities, like sophomore Yana Kane.
“I feel like I should be able to sympathize more, but since I grew up in this environment, it’s difficult for me to empathize with [people in Ukraine] even though they’re technically my people,” she said.
However, while the war in Ukraine may be the most public example of desensitization, it remains far from the only one. Shestopal said that this notion plays into a larger view of how nations such as the United States views conflicts in different areas of the world.
“It speaks to the way we visualize the Global South here in the United States,” he said. “Conflicts in the Global South [are seen as] ‘Oh, poor them, let’s help them out,’ whereas in the North Atlantic it’s more like ‘Oh my god, this is the fall of civilization.’”
Sophomore Taban Malihi said that coverage of conflict can be unequal between parts of the world, yet it desensitizes viewers all the same.
“The same week that Ukraine was invaded by Russia, the U.S. dropped airstrikes on Somalia, and no one was talking about it. There’s a lot of different things that are happening at once, and it can feel so overwhelming,” she said.
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Learning to Lead
Even as teenagers today find themselves overloaded with coverage of cataclysm, sophomore Sasha Vorobyov said that she and her peers make an effort to educate themselves about the world.
“[Young people] see the news, they talk about the news, they watch videos about the news and what’s going on in Ukraine and other countries,” she said. “I definitely think people my age are trying to be informed.”
Senior Zachary Meurer said that Generation Z’s desensitization, though prevalent, may ebb as its members get older. He said that as a result, what started off as a generation prone to tuning out may turn into one more informed than its predecessors.
“Over time, you gather more information, and when you get older, you care about history more because a lot of history happened during your lifetime,” he said.
Similarly, Baum said that Generation Z’s capacity to be informed may make it a focal point of civic involvement — a transformation that he said may have broader implications for American politics in the coming years, as the youth of today influences the politics of tomorrow.
“A colleague of mine, John Donahoe, just wrote a book which is a much more optimistic picture of Gen Z as being more activist and more determined to be involved,” he said. “I buy that too. People react in more than one way to being disillusioned and facing one existential threat after another … I think it’s going to tell a lot about the next couple of decades of American politics.”
However, sophomore Danny Aldehneh said that in order to fully realize their potential for change, youth must put in the effort to expand their worldview.
“Even if [educating yourself] has to do with looking at a chart from school, just take the time and energy to focus on what’s important,” he said. “And just be kind to others because at the end of the day, you really don’t have anyone but the other people in the world.”
*Name changed to protect interviewee’s identity.