Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 15 October 2019

What we see online can cause lasting, real-life trauma

Studies have shown that violent and extreme images have the potential to spark symptoms of PTSD in those who view them

Extreme or violent online images can leave deep psychological scars. AP 
Extreme or violent online images can leave deep psychological scars. AP 

Scrolling through my social media timeline, I hovered over a video of a minor road traffic accident – a seemingly inconsequential fender bender. My curiosity aroused, I watched on, wondering how the incident would unfold. I anticipated a shouting match or a roadside brawl. However, I was traumatised when a huge lorry entered the frame and ploughed straight into the quarrelling motorists, in all likelihood killing them both instantly.

I don’t use the word traumatised lightly. For weeks after witnessing this clip, the image of the speeding truck smashing into the unsuspecting motorists kept creeping back into my consciousness. I was experiencing what mental health professionals call an intrusive memory: the repetitive and upsetting recollections that are a key symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Whenever I see a road traffic accident in the real world, so long as the emergency services have arrived, I avert my gaze and concentrate on driving. Many of us, however, seem keen to witness the spectacle, a phenomenon known as rubbernecking. Worse still, some people attempt to film the carnage with their phones. Why?

I have never understood why so many individuals have a dangerous and morbid fascination with other people's accidents. Seeing the human cost of such incidents can be harrowing, and rubbernecking often causes congestion and secondary collisions.

The UK police have started using an innovative roll-out “incident screen”, which can be rapidly assembled at the site of accidents, affording the victims privacy and dignity, while protecting voyeuristic motorists from harming themselves or others, whether by causing further accidents or suffering the later psychological effects of witnessing such scenes.

The fact that we can develop PTSD symptoms after observing a traumatic event happening to someone else is well documented

The fact that we can develop PTSD symptoms after observing a traumatic event happening to someone else is well documented. This idea of vicarious PTSD is also clearly stated in the American Psychiatric Association’s latest criteria for the disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Version 5 – the go-to tool of psychiatrists and psychologists in many nations – suggests that the condition can arise in witnesses to traumatic scenes as well as those physically involved in them.

My intrusive memories, however, were related to a video clip on Twitter, not events that I saw unfold in real life. Can viewing images of traumatic events on social media have negative impacts on our mental health too?

According to some of the 15,000 workers who moderate content for Facebook, PTSD-like symptoms are an occupational hazard, with several such people already having received official diagnoses.

Content moderators are responsible for flagging and removing inappropriate material, which can involve them being repeatedly exposed to violent and generally distressing images. The items they decide to remove, will include the most extreme end of the graphic content spectrum, such as child exploitation, animal cruelty, suicide and murder.

In 2018, Selena Scola, a former content moderator on contract with Facebook, brought a lawsuit against the company claiming that the violent and distressing images and footage she was routinely exposed to in the course of her work caused her to suffer PTSD. Earlier this year, Erin Elder and Gabriel Ramos, two more former Facebook contractors, also claimed to have suffered psychological trauma, owing to their roles as content moderators. They have joined common cause with Ms Scola, and Facebook could now face a class-action lawsuit.

Having, myself, experienced intrusive memories after watching just one distressing social media clip, I can easily see how regular viewers of such content might develop psychological problems. The former senior Pentagon adviser on mental health, a retired army colonel and psychiatrist, Dr Elspeth Ritchie, suggests that “in the vast majority of people, just seeing violent images is not enough, but in some people it could be”.

A study undertaken by researchers from the University of Bradford in the UK and presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in 2015 looked directly at the impact of viewing traumatic events via social media. The study of 189 participants found that around 20 per cent of people obtained high scores on clinical measures of PTSD after viewing such events, despite having no prior history of trauma. The lead author of the study, Dr Pam Ramsden, suggests that large numbers of social media users are being negatively affected by what they see online.

This appears to signal that, although many of us view the internet as a wholly virtual world, the mental health consequences of what we experience on it can be all too real.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: July 3, 2019 01:26 PM