29 June 2015

Antisocial media

A recent news story surprised me and yet, at the same time, chimed with me: a study had found that people could develop the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of viewing disturbing or violent images or videos online.

At first, this might sound ridiculous. How could seeing something on a screen compare with, say, experiencing war at first hand? Such a claim is surely an insult to anybody who has suffered real-life trauma?

As discussion opened up around this, however, it became clear that the study was reporting a similarity to PTSD symptoms, which include anxiety, insomnia and mood changes. It also indicated that only those who repeatedly exposed themselves to such images or videos were at risk of long-term problems that might lead to a diagnosis of actual PTSD. 

The study involved a group of just 189 people, so more research is needed, but this initial work has raised questions considered worthy of further investigation. 

It was carried out by Dr Pam Ramsden, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Bradford, who warned that 'natural worriers' were amongst those most likely to be negatively influenced by online material - if there's one thing OCD sufferers are, it's natural worriers! 

She noted that a particular problem with social media was that images come up on screen without the kind of health warning that might be delivered by a continuity announcer or newsreader ahead of a violent film or distressing story. In fact, I've fallen victim to this myself twice, while on Facebook.

The first time, I was scanning the usual innocuous stories and photos posted by friends, when an image suddenly appeared of the aftermath of a car crash. I won't describe this, for obvious reasons, but the injuries to the four people who had died were extensive and graphically clear.

Image courtesy of basketman/
The person who had originally shared it had invited sympathetic comment and one of my friends - a compassionate woman - had responded, which led to the item being visible on my timeline. I scrolled away from it straightaway, but it was too late; the image was burned onto my mind and stayed at the forefront of my thoughts for days. 

The same thing happened when a different friend commented on a photo of a murdered hostage; once again, the image haunted me for a long time.

When I discussed this with the friend concerned, he expressed surprise at my response, and said 'People need to know about these things.' I explained that I didn't need to see atrocities to be aware of them, and found it distressing just hearing about these terrible acts, let alone viewing the aftermath.

Whether such images are of accidents or of man's inhumanity against man, they're a reminder of how little control any of us actually has. As well as being upsetting, they can be triggering for people with OCD, who are on a constant quest for certainty.

Social media allows me to stay in touch with friends and connect with people around the world, so I'm not prepared to give it up, just to avoid the occasional upset. I wish, though, that those of a more robust nature than mine would think twice about what they share - albeit sometimes inadvertently - with the rest of us!


Rosie Canning said...

Thank you Carol for this insightful blog. I agree that people should be more careful about what they post. Sometimes I follow someone only to find they are not a writer but a porn addict and then their images of naked people in comprising positions fill my Twitter feed. I have to add that those who are not careful sometimes just don't care. I spent all of yesterday in tears over the images that kept popping up on my Twitter and Facebook feed. The horrendous killings in Charleston and then Tunisia. Stabbing of young boys in London. etc etc. This was made worse because I then read of all the awful things that had been happening. I don't feel safe anymore and when I went out to a swimming pool later that day with the headlines flashing in my head that the UK was under threat I found myself imagining all sorts of horrid things happening. I'm taking a break today!

Rosie Canning said...

Not Carol...HELEN!!!

Helen Barbour said...

Rosie, I am so sorry to hear how upset you are. I hope you feel better soon. What amazes me is how many people photograph or film what's going on in these situations, rather than seeking safety. The news footage yesterday included a recording from a Tunisian hotel employee who followed the gunman - why? The news presenter referred to him 'bravely' recording - foolishly, I'd say. Take good care of yourself.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Helen, and it's not just social media, it's all news, isn't it? Tragic news "sells" and I find the news, in the US at least, is becoming more and more sensationalized. I haven't watched it in years for this very reason. I tell my husband if there's anything going on in the world that I really need to know about, he should tell me!

Helen Barbour said...

ocdtalk, thanks for your feedback. It is certainly true about general news coverage and the 24-hour news channels just keep playing the same footage on a loop - inevitably, of course, given the nature of those channels - so there is no getting away from it. Someone I was talking to recently said that if he doesn't watch the news for a few days, he feels as if he's had a holiday!