Social media and keeping a healthy mind during times of crisis

woman with hands up in victory after a work out
Dinah Bryant
Mon 13 Jan

A notification on my phone in recent days informed me that my screen time was up 40% in the past week...I didn’t have to stop and think why.

The current bushfire crisis, which sadly extends across a large slice of our eastern seaboard, Snowy Mountains and also Adelaide and Western Australia, has our nation captivated.

And we’re captivated on so many levels and feeling every type of emotion...sadness, despair, helplessness and heartache; but there’s also beautiful stories of heroism, comradery, selflessness and true Australian spirit that help keep our spirits high.

Social media has become such a vital communication platform in times of an emergency or crisis. I’ve actually found myself scrolling much further into my feeds and on more occasions than I usually would.

I wasn’t surprised to receive a notification advising my screen time had increased.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can be used to disseminate information quickly. With a dynamic bushfire crisis where conditions are changing so rapidly, fast news delivery is critical.

In our current bushfire crisis, these platforms have not only been vital in disseminating important emergency information, they have also been valuable in allowing family and friends to locate the whereabouts of loved ones. They have also shared heartwarming stories of everyday Australians helping wildlife and banding together to donate supplies to fire affected areas.

In short, social media has completely changed the way we communicate.

Gone are the days where radio and TV are our fastest form of communicating to a broad audience...even the TV news stations are pushing their latest stories and live news feeds on social media, knowing this will boost views and allow information to easily be shared.

While as a communicator, mother and family member to people directly impacted by the bushfires, I am grateful for social media right now.

But, I am also deeply concerned about the potential toll of constantly checking social media feeds in times of emergency and natural disaster?

On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day I was constantly reaching for my phone. After a while I found myself getting overly stroppy with the kids. I was snapping at my husband. My mum and sister were visiting and I barely looked up at them.

We live in Canberra, where the smoke has been thick and on some days extremely toxic, so much of our time has been spent inside with the smoke thick and pungent.

It didn’t take long into the New Year before I succumbed to headaches and dizzy spells, something that I am not normally prone to. Some of it can be attributed to the smoke, but some of it was also the screen time and my slipping into a state of despair.

I felt sad for everyone who had lost so much; annoyed that I was trapped inside due to bad air quality (but also thankful for the roof over my head and clothes on my back); useless that I couldn’t help those most in need; and worried my elderly mother wouldn’t cope with the smoke. But in all of this I kept reaching for my phone.

However, it wasn’t just the worry. I also found myself questioning what sort of person I was not to be out rescuing wildlife, or helping out with donations at our local G-Spot like so many others were. I saw the outpouring of donations and volunteering being posted to my feed—yet I was at home.

The reality is that I was helping in my own ways, but it didn’t feel enough when I compared it to what I was seeing on my social media feed.

I was beginning to allow everything related to the fires to send me into a spin...again, not something I am normally prone to.

I’m writing this now as I know that if I felt this way, others surly did too. With the all-consuming information, we can become paralysed. As the Help Guide on Traumatic Stress states: “The emotional toll from a traumatic event can cause intense, confusing, and frightening emotions. And these emotions aren’t limited to the people who experienced the event...Whether you were directly involved in the traumatic event or exposed to it after the fact, there are steps you can take to recover your emotional equilibrium and regain control of your life”.

After two days of scrolling through social media feeds, constantly checking the “Fires near me” app and keeping an eye on ABC News 24, I made a conscious decision to put my phone down.

The next day I only checked-in occasionally. I still wanted to be informed...I had friends and family in the snowies and on the coast, but I needed to separate myself from the situation.

The Help Guide on Traumatic Stress also states that “Excessive exposure to images of a disturbing event —such as repeatedly viewing video clips on social media or news sites—can even create traumatic stress in people not directly affected by the event”.

While it’s true that we need to stay alert to trusted media to ensure our safety, this says a lot about how quickly we can spiral if we get completely consumed by the event on our social media.

There is also a wealth of research that shows how bad social media can be for our mental health, in general, particularly when overused. The most vulnerable are our youth.

A survey published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in the UK showed a possible link between mental illness and heavy social media use. The #StatusofMind survey found young people who spend more than two hours per day connecting on social networking sites are more likely to suffer from increased levels of psychological distress, depression and anxiety. This report wasn’t all doom and gloom though, it also revealed that social media platforms can promote a sense of community and provide emotional support for at-risk youth.

A research study involving 143 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, titled No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression, found that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.

When we look at the above limits of 30 minutes or 2-hours, we can see how social media use in a crisis can go well above the ‘safe-limits’ suggested by research. I know many who have said an hour or two has simply gone by as they checked social media updates on the fires in bed when waking.

While it may not work for everyone, putting my phone down was important for me; it helped me regroup. The headaches eased, my attitude improved and we hit a shopping centre to get some fresh air and regain some ‘normal’.

Letting go of the updates while I went out wasn’t easy and it made me think about how many people might be feeling a similar way.

Generally speaking, social media is a positive and useful tool. It’s a fast and easy means to communicate information to a broad audience, particularly in times of crisis, as we are currently experiencing. I for one wouldn’t want to be without it.

But if you are feeling a little overwhelmed, if your social media feed is making you upset, give yourself a break, breathe a little and take time to regroup. That social media platform will still be there tomorrow, but a little break away might be the escape you need.

Whether you’ve been impacted by this bushfire season directly or indirectly we all need to take time for ourselves. It’s important we maintain our mental health to be there for others and to get through this time.

If you’re feeling uneasy and you can’t shake it, please remember that organisations like Lifeline (13 11 14) and Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) are only a phone call away.



Dinah Bryant

Specialists in Communication’s resident comms manager Dinah is a mum to four active children, coach of a Cheer Squad, and owner and cake maker at Hooray for Cake. 

Previously, she was a senior public servant, journalistt and political advisor. 

She is an active member of various school and sporting groups, supporting her children’s endeavours and helping out where she can. When she gets a spare moment, her inner champagne connoisseur emerges over a bubbly or two; and she puts pen to paper (or fingers to keys) to draw on her journalism background and write an article or two.