Research by psychologists at the University of Bradford appears to show that large numbers of social media users are traumatised by the violent and disturbing photographs available on Twitter and Facebook. There is a need, according to the researchers, for risk warnings and appropriate support for sufferers.
Investigating the “vicarious” psychological effect triggered by images of events such as 9/11 and the murder of fusilier Lee Rigby, the team led by lecturer Dr Pam Ramsden found that over a fifth of the study’s randomly chosen participants were suffering symptoms commonly associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Participants had not experienced previous trauma and only viewed the images via social media but still scored highly on clinical measures of PTSD.
PTSD – symptoms of which include nightmares, anxiety attacks and flashbacks – is known to affect some victims and witnesses of accidents, crimes and disasters as well as the soldiers and emergency workers who work in fields directly affected by such events. Vicarious trauma, on the other hand, can result from indirect exposure to other people’s suffering and has been observed in health workers treating victims after the event and even jurors presented with evidence in court.
Psychologists conducting the study had expected to find that viewers became desensitised to the images but the study contradicted that. Dr Ramsden, presenting at the British Psychological Society’s annual meeting, said:
“The ones who had been traumatised had consistently viewed these images. They were consistently viewing them – looking them up – as if they were drawn to them. Previous research has shown that police officers, for example, can become desensitised. I expected to find the same thing here, but I saw the exact opposite. These people were continually re-traumatising themselves.”
Proposing that the re-traumatising may be a result of viewers being drawn to images which chime with events or experiences in their own lives, she even suggested that pictures of three-year-old Madeleine McCann’s face alone could affect parents negatively.
Dr Ramsden said that she suspects the potential psychological effects of distressing social media images are unreported and misdiagnosed as depression instead of trauma. She claimed that before the advent of mass social media, news consumers could choose whether or not to view violent or distressing images but believes that choice has now been taken away from people. Speculating about a solution Dr Ramsden said:
“I don’t know what can be done. Unless you get off Twitter and Facebook you can’t stop it.”