Social media has taken the world by storm. According to a recent demographic study, nearly 5 billion people use social media as of 2023. In today’s world, and especially in Western culture, it is rare to find someone without social media. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok provide entertaining content to users; my personal favorite social media app is TikTok. The app has endless content: mesmerizing travel content, gourmet cooking videos, funny challenges, and humorous narratives that flood my screen and capture my attention. Before I even decide if I want to keep spending time on the app, my fingers do the scrolling for me, and I am sucked into the next video.
As a college student and young adult navigating life, TikTok provides a space for me to feel validated, as well as find inspiration in my endeavors; if anything, it is simply an outlet for entertainment. It is a great platform for promoting interactions between people and helping create bonds—a community. However, I have recently noticed that every time I spend time on the app, I experience a turbulent array of emotions. I belly-laugh, beam, gasp, wince, and (sometimes) shed tears in the span of one sitting. I cannot help but think that this sudden and constant fluctuation of emotions cannot be healthy.
I am a student at The Pennsylvania State University majoring in Biobehavioral Health, and I study a variety of mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have witnessed or experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Many think that PTSD can only be developed as a result of direct contact; however, PTSD can be triggered through traumatic media content and from events that have occurred miles away, and this content is easily accessible through social media platforms such as TikTok. Vicarious traumatization is when the human brain is negatively impacted by traumatic events without personally experiencing or witnessing that event. Not only does social media fuel this, but we may not even notice the damaging effects because people often don’t recognize the symptoms of trauma or are not aware of media-triggered trauma. Some post-traumatic stress symptoms include loss of sleep, intrusive thoughts about the experience, memory impairments, or severe emotional distress. Not only can traumatic content trigger these symptoms for the first time, but such content can also re-trigger individuals who have experienced similar traumatic stories in the past.
Videos and news on social media platforms vary greatly. Although much content fosters happy and joyous feelings, there is also content that displays horrific, vivid, gruesome, or disheartening storylines and images. While news and videos about school shootings, climate disasters, appalling personal anecdotes, and other traumatic events are important and must be shared as a vehicle and catalyst for compassion and change, we must recognize the lasting trauma they may inflict on viewers.
Although you can adjust some of the content that appears on your social media, this doesn’t completely stop the possibility of traumatic and triggering videos or stories from appearing on your feed. I have attempted to customize my TikTok content to display “positive” and “uplifting” videos, but still encounter videos on traumatic death or pain and suffering. Once the video appears on my screen (even if it has a trigger warning), it is hard to look away. Social media keeps your eyes and curiosity glued to the screen like you are a kid at a candy shop; you find that the candy is intensely sour and leaves your gums raw, yet you can’t help but devour it. Social media consumes you. It constantly bombards you with world catastrophes and you cannot catch a break; this is not healthy. I often wonder how my own mental health has been impacted by traumatic media exposure, and if my anxious symptoms can be partially attributed to this.
So you may think, what should be done?
We must become more aware of daily media consumption and the downsides that come with it. Awareness is the first step, and when we realize that our poor mental health may be attributed to social media exposure, we can take steps to limit use. Additionally, we must urge social media platforms to allow more features that block traumatic and depressing content. TikTok has a feature where it provides users with the option to select “interests” to display as content. Within that feature, TikTok (and other social media platforms alike) should emphasize the option to limit or completely abolish traumatic videos. Social media employees should further focus on reviewing videos and ensuring that traumatic content is flagged and stays off of the feeds of people who solely select and want positive content. Lastly, we must find better ways to share uncensored stories and events, whether that is through news outlets or platforms specifically designed for these stories that may be triggering.
Mental health matters. Our preferences on social media matter. Our voices matter. We deserve to view entertainment media platforms without feeling triggered or acquiring secondary trauma. Let’s dismantle triggering media before triggering media “dismantles” us.