Li: Death in the digital age

Grant Li, Assistant Opinion Editor

The digital age lets us follow stories and events from around the world as they happen. One can follow the developments of the war in Ukraine, negotiations from the congressional floor and the latest medical diagnoses or deaths of famous figures.

Our world has been digitalized for long enough that we almost forget how odd it is to be scrolling through this type of content on digital platforms on a daily basis. Younger generations hardly recall a time when it was different.

Drawing conclusions about the unique nature of the present is always tenuous. There always seems to be a recency bias toward viewing current events as more extreme than the past, as if death and tragedy didn’t also occupy headlines in previous eras of history. Still, we must acknowledge information and news cycles move at a faster pace today. 

Recognizing the novelty of the inescapability of death and suffering on digital media should help us understand the ongoing mental health crisis a little more. A key aspect of being a young person in America today is being told we have it “better than ever,” and yet all we see in the news is hardship and misfortune. Not only does information travel in real time, with news of death appearing before us far more often, but people also have more opportunities to share their personal experiences. People on YouTube or other social media platforms can easily document and tell their own stories in dealing with illnesses and tragedies, something that wasn’t readily available in the past. 

Constantly witnessing suffering and grief, without a doubt, negatively impacts people’s emotional and mental well-being. For example, reading about someone’s diagnosis or illness-related death can generate health anxiety. In the media age of the past, perhaps news was a little easier to digest in the morning after picking up the newspaper, or on television only after returning home from work. Today, accessing the news means just turning on our phones.

Witnessing suffering is not necessarily bad. Things like death and illness are unavoidable and integral parts of life that we can benefit from being able to face. Seeing other people’s experiences can give us a more sympathetic heart or inform us on how to proceed when these situations inevitably descend upon us. In a way, people who lived in past eras of media were spared from the deluge of the world’s suffering because it was out of sight and out of mind. There was simply no technology to make that suffering visible. Today, we do not have the same luxuries of not knowing, but this can be an opportunity to be better. An existence that includes grief and sadness is, in fact, how the world and this life actually are, and we should be able to look at it straight on. 

The solution, then, is not to simply eliminate any signs of life’s negative realities from our daily media consumption, but to build an apparatus of emotional and mental health care and education that helps us process it properly. Eventually, we can hope to live in a way that is more in tune with every aspect of life — both the good and bad.  

Grant Li is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.