Do we cross the proverbial white line between positive and negative when social media intersects with trauma?
Over the last twelve years, Trinidad and Tobago recorded murder rates in excess of three hundred (300) annually (Seepersad, 2016). During the last two (2) months, January to February of 2017, the country has experienced unprecedented levels of different forms of violence. Individuals, families and communities have felt pain and fear and experienced losses that have touched many.
The number of violent and traumatic attacks occurring daily is staggering. This leads one to ask the following questions:
- Could it be that social media are the tools that opened our eyes to events which were always present?
- Is it that social media have helped to escalate the trauma of these violent attacks by vicarious transference to those who were not witnesses or directly related to victims?
The public has endured a steady stream of images, newsreels, commentators and journalists discussing violent attacks. During the month of December in 2016, the country reeled from the vicious attack against a young woman in the heart of Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. During the days that followed, numerous repetitions of the story could be viewed in the news and on social media. There is hardly enough time to absorb one attack before another is perpetrated. The violence and pain is amplified through social media outlets as every-day Smartphone users become amateur and untrained ‘journalists’.
The use of social media is a reality of society today. Social media channels can be used to connect with family and friends as well as to stay abreast of current events, locally, regionally and internationally. Through the use of social media, users can create content for entertainment, business or education. Users of social media can edit content, evaluate, react, respond and link content from one site to another across all types of boundaries and borders.
While the benefits are widely known and statistically supported, little attention has been paid as to how social media technologies may change the way individuals are engaged in this form of knowledge sharing. The simultaneous explosion of violence and use of social media has led to our people being bombarded with stories, images and videos of violence, sometimes in real time, in our backyards and around the world.
At this critical junction between trauma and social media lie some very poignant questions. For example:
- How does viewing a relative’s demise impact on surviving members of the family and friends?
- If a victim survives, what effects do photos, videos or stories with explicit content have on the survivor’s quality of life?
- In the case of an accused who is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, how is that person’s life impacted by the negative feedback from social media posts, if and when evidence proves otherwise?
- How does a user of social media, who was not directly involved in a violent attack, respond emotionally to viewing or reading graphic and gory details of such an incident?
Social media can play an important role for former victims. It can be the medium through which they have a safe space for sharing within a closed group. It can be a source of vital information empowering former victims and simultaneously helping them to feel less alone as they read stories of other survivors. Thus, one of the positive influences of social media is that they can provide online forums for healing. By engaging professional trauma practitioners including psychologists, lawyers and other stakeholders, they can also become a host for critical discourse related to the criminal justice system.
However, the continuous feed of unnerving, traumatic posts seems to be enabling a cycle of trauma. The very tools, created to develop technological communication and enhance connections and networking are fast becoming sources of “micro aggression, depression and fear” (Italian Home For Children, 2015).
In 2015, research conducted by the British Psychological Society (2015) was released on the effect of viewing violent images and videos on social media. The study focused on psychological changes including the incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The results of that study indicated that 22% of the participants were significantly and adversely affected by viewing traumatic social media posts.
"These individuals scored high on clinical measures of PTSD even though none had previous trauma, were not present at the traumatic events and had only watched them via social media."
(British Psychological Society, 2015)
One inference deduced from the study is that all persons feel some degree of fear and anxiety associated with secondary or vicarious trauma. With this in mind, the nebulous confluence of social media and trauma can be addressed. Statistically linked with the indicators of PTSD, are the responses of persons who were not even directly involved in acts of violence. These persons simply viewed posts on social media and became affected.
The public displays of videos, photos and stories of violence on social media posts reflect a lack of empathy, compassion and respect for personal and private trauma. In combination with the incidence of PTSD, this produces a recipe for the cocktail needed to multiply the burden of fear, anxiety and depression already weighing down on society. Is this an acceptable way forward into the future? Victim Support Foundation (VSF) does not advocate this. It is our conviction that all media including social media users have a responsibility to uphold our society’s morality when reporting or posting about crime, violence and misfortune. We stand in direct support for more humane treatment of victims, survivors and their families, as well as vicarious victims.
Further, VSF is concerned about the effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) on our youth. These effects have not only proven to be long term but a drain on society’s resources in addressing medical, socioeconomic, mental health and family issues. This has become even more critical as children as young as four (4) years of age have access to social media via an adult’s mobile phone or smart device. We must empower our young people to express their feelings and talk about their experiences so that they are encouraged to better process their emotions. More people must be made aware of the extent of emotional damage in children as a result of direct or indirect violence and how it can impact on their physical health and intellectual development.
Everyone has a responsibility to stem the rapid devastation of trauma through indiscriminate use of social media for posting on violence that is threatening our society. Furthermore, everyone has a role to play in helping to develop guidelines for more compassionate and respectful posting on all media. Although media professionals would have earned their qualifications by an appreciation of global standards and the power of media, the general public does not post with an understanding of the social impact of that one click. Horror, gore and violence draw the energy and vitality of a healthy society and it should not be accepted as entertainment.
VSF agrees that social media channels have a part to play in advancement but we postulate that this role must be carefully regulated, whether legislatively or morally. Social media are powerful tools for dissemination of information, the sharing of personal and national successes and for social reform and advocacy. However, one must be cognisant of the way these powerful tools can be harmful and traumatising if not properly used. Being cognisant, one needs to consciously take action to neutralize negative effects.
The insulated approach many have adopted, choosing either to slide quickly past damaging posts or speak within closed groups about the defilement of human life and death, has to be discarded. We cannot stand idly by and allow ‘gallows humour’ to make us numb to the ills of our fellow man. We need to step out and raise our voices against insensitive use of social media on behalf of all the tear-stained faces of grieving loved ones. We can make a difference one click at a time. Let healthy posting begin with you!
Caron Asgarali is a Trinidadian educator, author of three books, co-founder of an author support service, inspirational speaker, a volunteer for several NGOs and a mother of one son. Ms. Asgarali retired after serving in the teaching profession as a Chemistry teacher for twenty two years. She retired on medical grounds after being shot in an attempted robbery in 2013. She has since embarked on a mission to raise awareness on the ripple effect of gun violence. That mission, called RARE, is used to promote resilience building skills among young persons, offering them alternative responses to violence when faced with challenging situations.
Through RARE, which is developing as a character education programme, Ms. Asgarali uses a systematic, scientific approach from her third book, Bounce Back Better, 10(+1) Key Steps for Building Resilience, to help young persons develop their emotional and social consciousness to interact more positively. Ms. Asgarali’s previous publications include From Lion to Lamb, A Spiritual Journey and Gently Powerful Prayers.