Written by David Oehlenschläger, trauma psychologist and Mie Oehlenschläger, external lecturer, New Media.
Recently news media reported a story about a suicide video that was displayed on several social media platforms such as TikTok and Facebook. The video was originally a live stream on Facebook that spread to other social media platforms displaying a man committing suicide shooting himself in the head. As a psychologist that has been working with serious PTSD and trauma for almost 10 years, I believe that this video content among others give rise to concern about children and youth using social media.
Children and Young People are Particularly Vulnerable
Psychologically, children and young people are vulnerable to violent images and sensory impressions of death. We know this from war and trauma research. Adults are also strongly influenced, but children and young people are particularly vulnerable, as they have not, to the same extent as adults, developed the emotional and cognitive filters that enable them to understand and manage the impressions. Children and young people have, so to speak, to a much greater extent the “parades down”. An incident where you witness a man committing suicide by shooting himself in the head is of such a violent nature that it will be described as a traumatic event within psycho traumatology, ie. an event that triggers trauma reactions.
What are Trauma Reactions?
Trauma reactions are characterized by a strong emotional impact with a high degree of anxiety and discomfort. Sometimes these reactions only occur some time after the incident. Subsequently, for a period of time, the child may have difficulty letting go of the images and impressions. It keeps popping into my head, like images, sounds or a movie running for the inner eye – even at night in the form of nightmares. This repeatedly triggers the anxiety and the unpleasant feelings. As a result, sleep may be disturbed and increased alertness may develop, with the child having difficulty finding peace. This also affects concentration and learning and can give rise to withdrawal and depression. These are natural reactions to something violent and unpleasant while the psyche is working on processing and digesting the impressions. In most cases, it will subside over a period of time, while for some it may take more time and, in the worst case, contribute to persistent problems with anxiety or depression.
The “Parents Should Listen Solution” is Minimizing the Problem
We get concerned when child- and youth organizations and NGO’s that claim to protect children seem to neglect or minimize the problems and risks to children and young people’s mental health associated with this type of experience on the Internet and Social Media. I do not think that is their intention, but it appears as such when their best solution alone is for “parents to ask their children, how they have been doing online”, that “parents should be better at listening” – and finally, that parents should not recommend their children to not use these media platforms.
If we really want to listen to the children, then we should listen to what a boy in 6th grade told us: “I wish I had never seen that video!”.
From a Trauma Perspective Social Media is not Safe for Children
Kids should not watch this content at all to begin with, and this video is just the tip of the iceberg. Thus, one may question whether children and young people should be on these media at all, as long as their protection is not guaranteed. Politicians and others responsible for the children will have to take this far more seriously. And it cannot be left alone to social media to fix this. Seen from our perspective they have played bankrupt. After all these years – they still don’t protect children!
Therefore, the time has come for a much more fundamental discussion and conversation about how online child protection can be guaranteed.
As professionals, we would, for the sake of protection, so far recommend that children and young people do not use these media.