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  • Writer's pictureKristy Aspinwall, LPC

Secondary Traumatization in the Age of the Internet

Secondary trauma is a concern among so many- first responders, mental health workers, medical professionals, lawyers, teachers, and some professionals we don’t even realize. The exposure to others’ trauma, both when expected and as a “surprise”, can leave us with symptoms that are similar and sometimes identical to those of primary PTSD. However, I don’t believe this phenomenon is exclusive to professionals. Not by a long shot. As a matter of fact, I think we’ve all experienced it to some degree. And, as a society, I think we are operating from a traumatized state of mind more than ever. 

We are living in a time where the average tween can get their hands on information that once wasn’t available to virtually any adult. Curious kids can search for violent images of war, angry teens can instantaneously find fifteen ways to build a bomb, and unwitting grade-schoolers can be bombarded with explicit instructions on how to self-harm. This incredibly young age of exposure, as we know with primary trauma, makes PTSD symptoms far more likely and pervasive.

This is not a statement on how awful the internet is or how parents “need to be monitoring their kids”. As most Millennials, it’s hard for me to imagine my world without the internet and I tend to believe that, mostly, it is guiding us towards a more informed, aware, and educated world. We are able to learn, connect, and inform in ways that were never possible before the turn of the century. However, there are some significant consequences that we don’t appear to have really prepared for. 

Although not a “DSM- sanctioned” disorder, Vicarious or Secondary Trauma is a term understood by much of the academic and medical community. It refers to the traumatization that occurs when one is exposed to the primary trauma of others’. That is to say, when you sit with or bear witness to trauma that is not happening directly to you or does not directly impact you, you can still experience symptoms very similar to those of the medically defined “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”.

More and more every day, we are exposed to the real and imagined trauma of others. News stories are closer to the “source” than ever, we have drones that send back live feeds of war-zones, and creative cinematography is almost impossible to distinguish from documentary. Whether we go seeking it or not, we are regularly exposed to stories of trauma and trial. And this exposure is leading us down a path of fear, uncertainty, and suspicion. We see firsthand the underbelly of humanity that was once only seen by a select few, and we feel closer to it and more victimized by it. We feel that, at any moment, the “enemy” could breach our white picket fence and invade our lives, not in the imagined or possible, but in reality.

There are a multitude of ways we feel closer to something after having seen it. When you watch crime dramas, you may feel like anyone around you could be a masterminded criminal. When you search a certain type of car, you may feel like there are a disproportionately high number of them on the highway. And when you vicariously experience a trauma, that trauma feels like it could happen to you at any given moment. This is one of the ways we learn and avoid problems. It’s one of the things that makes us most human and puts us at the top of the food chain- our ability to watch others go through things and learn from that in order to not make the mistakes ourselves. It’s immeasurably valuable. And it is also part of how we have wound up in a society that is acting as one, unified, PTSD-stricken mass.

As a society, we operate in a scarcity- minded mentality. We are devoutly protective of our own resources. We can sometimes believe that those who would ask for any of those resources may also take them the moment our back is turned. We live in polarized thinking and struggle to view switch. We demonize the “other side” and make up our minds about its intentions right away. We operate strictly in concrete, definable, and traditional (read: comfortable and familiar) thinking and we struggle to be challenged or criticized. We feel threatened by disagreements, insulted by questions, and warned by assumptions and confirmation biases.

When I work with Trauma survivors in therapy, one of the things I say most often is that the symptoms of PTSD make perfect sense within the context of the trauma. If our society were in the midst of a trauma, say something like being a war stricken territory, then those symptoms would make sense. Resources likely are incredibly scarce. We must think in more primitive ways that allow for our baser instincts to protect us. We must quickly identify the “other side” because they are likely to hurt us. And we must always be wary of “signs”, dissention, and criticism because it could, in truth, be deadly.

However, we don’t live in that territory. We are statistically the safest and smartest humans in the history of the world. Life expectancies are longer, untimely mortality rates are lower, and the odds of being a victim of a homicide or violent attack have been cut almost in half over the past two decades. Medical science, access to health needs, and nutrition are statistically improving the world over. And, while this can understate the conditions some people do struggle with, as a society and a globe we are statistically living better than we ever have.

So, what gives?? Well, again, I must point you to the “Information Age” or, more specifically, the “Age of the Internet”. We still don’t know quite what to do with this big machine. Public access to the internet is just under 30 years old. Within 20 years of its inception, over 75% of the US population had regular access to it. For comparison, it took around 70 years for telephones to hit that kind of access and, although television is considered to have “boomed” across the nation almost immediately, it took around 40 years for 75% of people to have access there. These are some of the greatest inventions in technology and information access we have ever experienced, certainly in the modern era, and the spread of access doesn’t even compare.

The internet is arguably the biggest single container of information (of all kinds) humans have ever seen. It has become accessible to more people more quickly than any other piece of technology in history and is accessed by younger people than those other pieces as well. And, as tends to be true with a lot of technology, the youngest among us tend to grasp it and use it more effectively than those who pioneered it ever thought possible. It all contains some incredible possibilities for advancement and awareness, but it also leaves us with gaping breaks in the protection of our minds from invading information.

Nothing is out of bounds anymore. The impulsive thoughts of our angry minds are now responded to immediately instead of being forced to be sat with and thought about. The darker beliefs we would once keep to ourselves are cosigned straight away by a multitude of websites and “people”. And the things we still never dream of saying to someone’s face, we feel comfortable typing into the “fake” space of our computer screen. I think anyone who has accessed the internet has fallen victim to its ability to share trauma at some point.

So, what do I propose? Nothing, not really. I’m not moving for sweeping change or great intervention. I’m not shouting that we need to even step away (although, I can’t say that breaks are a bad thing). I’m simply asking that we become aware. One of the greatest things about the internet is its ability to make us aware of things going on all over the world. What that can keep us from is an awareness of what is going on right inside of ourselves. So, be aware of what you are being exposed to. The human mind has a great capacity for learning, be aware of what you are filling that capacity with. Be aware of the great machine at the tips of your fingers and the incredible possibilities, both for pain and progress, that it possesses. Be aware, be alive, and be kind.

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