Updated on 5/17/22
Oh, the internet. Home of cute cat videos, sarcastic memes that make us cackle, social media to engage with anyone anywhere, and lightning-fast news with real-time live video. What could go wrong?
For better or worse, the internet has largely become how we consume and share information and interact with others from every corner of the world. Because of its vast and complex nature, it’s hard to determine just how the internet impacts those who use it on a daily basis. But what about for those of us who live with post-traumatic stress disorder? Does the internet make PTSD worse?
There may be little scientific research on the topic currently, but through two unofficial case studies — the online proliferation of the #MeToo movement and the uptick in graphic content on the internet — let’s take a closer look at the relationship between PTSD and the internet.
Case Study: #MeToo
The #MeToo movement broke online following the sexual harassment allegations against entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein in fall 2017. People took to social media in droves to share their #MeToo stories — times when they have experienced sexual harassment — and new accusations against celebrities came out daily. It was impossible to escape reminders of sexual violence online.
For the 94 percent of those who experience PTSD symptoms two weeks after a rape, and the 30 percent who experience PTSD nine months or longer, being inundated with reminders of our own trauma is bound to have an impact.
Actress Evan Rachel Wood perhaps summed it up best when she tweeted on Nov. 17, 2017, a month after #MeToo caught like wildfire: “Has anyone else’s PTSD been triggered thru the roof? I hate that these feelings of danger are coming back.”
Wood perfectly captures one of the hallmarks of PTSD: reminders of our own trauma. These “triggers” can set off the same fight-flight-freeze response that happens during an actual traumatic event. For someone whose perpetrator wore a certain cologne or perfume, for example, smelling the same fragrance in our daily life can take us back to that moment in time we were in danger. We experience these terrifying memories, body sensations, and other physiological responses as if they were happening in the present.
Depending on the strength of the trigger — say reading a story online of a sexual assault that bears a strong resemblance to our own — those with PTSD may experience difficult PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks, debilitating anxiety, or depression, which can be disruptive and even lead to suicidal thoughts. In this way, the internet definitely can make PTSD worse.
“After the #MeToo campaign blew up online, the flashbacks and anxiety raged back with tremendous force,” Anna Johnson wrote for The Mighty. “As the stories continued to flood my social media and news pages, I had to significantly limit my time on these pages. In reading everyone’s stories, it felt like I was reliving my own trauma.”
On the other hand, the proliferation of #MeToo across the internet also sends a powerful message that we are not alone. This can build a sense of community online, social support that University of Alabama psychology professor James Hamilton told FiveThirtyEight “is a key protective factor against the development of PTSD.”
“[It’s] a way of understanding the universalism basically of, ‘I’m not the only one,’” Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW, adds. “There are other people that are speaking up. There are other people that went through the same experience that I’ve had and I am now able to either share my experience or at least know that there are other people that I can identify with.”
For those who don’t have people in their lives who understand the nature of PTSD, or for those who choose to remain anonymous in their real-life social circles, the internet may be the only place to find much-needed support. However, for those with PTSD, perhaps given the amount of triggers on the internet and social media, some experts suggest it may be in-person interactions that truly create a healing community.
“On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling such needs by allowing people to instantly connect,” write the authors of a study published in PLOS One on well-being and Facebook use in young people. “Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive ‘offline’ social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults — it may undermine it.”
Case Study: Graphic Online News
Because it’s more or less an open source to post anything with few filters, the advent of social media and the internet gives us all access to more graphic content. For those with PTSD, explicit online news coverage, especially when we happen across it unexpectedly, can trigger PTSD symptoms. But this type of online content is so potent, it’s enough to cause PTSD.
In 2015 University of Bradford psychologist Pam Ramsden studied how viewing violent news content online affected study participants with no previous trauma history. Similar to how first responders or emergency workers might be at risk for developing PTSD, it turns out so too are those who watch the same graphic events unfold online.
“It is quite worrying that nearly a quarter of those who viewed the images scored high on clinical measures of PTSD,” Ramsden concluded. “With increased access to social media and the internet via tablets and smartphones, we need to ensure that people are aware of the risks of viewing these images and that appropriate support is available for those who need it.”
This assertion is also made by experts such as forensic cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken, who shared with The Telegraph that “we see post-traumatic stress disorder, early signs of it, in the content moderators who are looking at extreme content. It’s only a matter of time before we see post-traumatic stress disorder in children who are looking at extreme content.”
Internet-Based Treatment Options
While it’s not looking so great for the internet and its connection to PTSD, there are some truly positive benefits of internet access, mainly thanks to a broader scope of resources. For example, on a basic level, internet-based platforms allow those with PTSD to find information about the illness and potential professional support that just wasn’t possible before the internet. Many mental health professionals are using this to their (and their clients’) advantage.
“I find that college students are quicker to check Facebook and Twitter statuses than their email, so using social media has been one way for us to promote and distribute information on healthy living and outreach events,” New York-based counselor Sarah Spiegelhoff shared with Counseling Today. “I also share information related to new apps that promote wellness both through our social media accounts and directly in counseling sessions.”
In a more direct manner, some models use the internet as the main delivery method for treatment, which is advantageous because mental health care is inaccessible to so many. And results show a promising improvement in PTSD symptoms so for. A 2017 study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, for example, tested an internet-based self-help model. Online modules focused on teaching clinically based PTSD treatments such as grounding, cognitive therapy, and relaxation techniques, which had positive benefits for participants.
So we may have the internet to thank for online-based services that provide access to support for those living with PTSD, like Talkspace. However, the free-range nature of life online, despite the sense of community and belonging it can create, is rife with triggers and the potential to cause more harm than good. This may not be true for everybody, and we certainly can’t just shut the internet down. But for those of us with PTSD — it might be best to proceed with caution.