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Violent news on social media could trigger post-traumatic symptoms, study says

If you’ve ever felt that social media can sometimes bring you down, a new study says that there may be something to that. According to research led by Dr. Pam Ramsden from the University of Bradford’s Faculty of Social Sciences, in England, people can develop post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms by viewing images associated with disturbing news events on social media.

Out of 189 participants, 22 percent were found to exhibit symptoms commonly associated with PTSD, a term commonly associated with military personnel returning from the battlefront. PTSD is a mental health condition that can arise after an individual’s exposed to a shocking event like an assault, major stress, or terrorist attack. Common symptoms include nightmares, anxiety attacks, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and hypervigilance.

Dr. Ramsden’s study looked at how images related to disturbing, well-known news stories – like the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the disappearance of three-year-old toddler Madeleine McCann – affected study participants. Interestingly, the people most traumatized by these images were the people drawn to them, which led to them continually watching the images in a vicious cycle of “re-traumatization.”

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The study focused on so-called “vicarious” trauma, which is unique because it affects people by exposing them to other people’s pain and suffering in an indirect way. Jurors as well as healthcare professionals can develop “vicarious” trauma. This is in contrast to professionals like police officers who, in spite of their direct exposure to trauma, can eventually become desensitized to it.

Dr. Ramsden, who also revealed her findings at the British Psychological Society’s yearly gathering in Liverpool, said that social media has made it possible for the public to absorb violent news and images in unedited, graphic form. Today, about 25 percent of the entire world has access to social media, making the transmission of disturbing images easy.

She’s particularly interested in finding out why some people “re-traumatize” themselves by constantly revisiting the same, upsetting images. She theorizes that attribution is the key to understanding this surprising study finding. Attribution occurs when people taking in social media images relate these images to things that have happened to themselves.

The implications of the findings could be grave. Dr. Ramsden warns that deleterious effects of social media may be underreported or mislabeled as merely depression. She believes that more people need to be alerted to these potential dangers of absorbing social media.