How Social Media War Videos Can Trigger Secondary Trauma | World | Latest news and insights from around the world | DW


A huge explosion – first a huge orange-yellow flash, then billowing plumes of smoke. The location is an administrative building at the edge of Svobody Square in the city of Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine.

This scene could be watched unfiltered anywhere in the world shortly after it happened. Video of the explosion, caused by a missile strike, as it later emerged, was widely shared on social media. Four days later, it had been viewed millions of times.

The war in Ukraine is also a digital war. Travel and reporting by journalists in the field is restricted and access to most areas is restricted or impossible. Therefore, much of the news coming out of Ukraine is so-called user-generated content, or eyewitness media. These are mostly published raw footage; editorial standards do not apply.

The result is a lot of heartbreaking content hitting the screens of social media users around the world. What does this mean for people consuming Ukraine war content online? How to avoid or at least limit potential psychological injuries? How can users stay informed on the one hand, while protecting their mental health on the other?

Secondary trauma

Secondary trauma refers to distress or negative emotional effects resulting from indirect exposure. In other words: secondary trauma can occur when an individual hears about another person’s first-hand traumatic experiences, or is exposed to horrific or distressing material via pictures or videos.

In particular, repeated exposure to disturbing content carries the risk of negative consequences for mental well-being. If possible, this should be avoided.

The study of the psychological effects of exposure to distressing digital content on social media is a relatively new area of ​​research. The same applies to the study of effective countermeasures.

“Always be prepared, avoid surprises, and be prepared to view distressing content at all times when you go online,” said Sam Dubberley, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Digital Investigations Lab and co-author of a report on eyewitness media and vicarious trauma.

While Dubberley’s research has focused on secondary or vicarious trauma in the context of journalism and human rights, some of his findings may also serve as advice for ordinary social media users watching war content in Ukraine.

Dubberly points out, “Be honest with yourself. If you see something distressing that affects you, acknowledge it. Don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t affect you if it does. ”

Everyone is different

It is important to emphasize that everyone is different and reactions to the same or similar events or exhibits vary. Also, a lot depends on the state of mind that prevails at the time of exposure.

Someone who expects to counter potentially disturbing material can warn themselves in advance in order to prepare accordingly for what might appear on the screen.

In addition, each individual has different triggers. For some it’s seeing explicit physical injuries, while for others it’s the sad or desperate look of a child.

Consideration of personal circumstances is also important. Having a personal connection to an event also plays a role. There is no particular technique or universal guideline that works for everyone in every type of setting. Nevertheless, a number of measures and activities can help limit the negative consequences.

Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Poland shared images of their experiences

Limit negative impacts on mental well-being

Being prepared to encounter potentially disturbing or distressing information when scrolling through a news feed is an important strategy. During a heavily documented war, a gruesome photo or video could pop up on the screen at any time.

The power of sounds should not be underestimated and social media users are advised to mute the sound on their newsfeeds.

Research has shown that the sound of, for example, a seriously injured or injured person “sticks” to the psyche much more than visual material. There are many very disturbing videos circulating online showing people being attacked and assaulted – and hearing about their pain and suffering can stick in the mind for a long time.

If watching videos of the war, social media users should reduce the video window size and disable autoplay. Turning away from the screen is always an option too.

Regular breaks away from phones and computers are advised to prevent users from being exposed to a constant stream of war footage almost every waking hour.

Protester with a phone in Krakow, Poland

People around the world, including in Krakow, Poland, protested against the war

If things go really wrong: ask for help

Those who become affected, either mentally or emotionally, are advised to watch for “unusual signs” (such as sleep problems, frequent nightmares, excessive alcohol or drug use, to name a few). -one) and to talk to others about their feelings. These can be family, friends or colleagues.

If these problems persist for long periods of time, professional help should be sought, if you have not already done so.

Wars produce an enormous amount of distress and trauma, not just for Ukrainians who are directly affected. While it is important to stay informed, social media users should remain aware of the possible risks that can result from exposure to disturbing digital material, wherever it is located.

Edited by: Ruairi Casey

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