Can We Get PTSD from the Internet?

How is the brain affected by tech? Can we get PTSD from the internet?
How is the brain affected by tech? Can we get PTSD from the internet?

Most of us have had occasions where we come across video footage or a photo on our social media feeds that make us feel ill. Briefly viewing horrible images, while traumatic at the time, is usually forgotten quickly as we move through life encoding new happier memories that replace the negative ones. However, if it is your job to review these images, that changes things.

Recent reports indicate that there are Microsoft employees that must do this tedious, emotionally traumatic work eight hours a day. The job of a Content Moderator is to review both computer and user referred content daily, which means they are being exposed to an overwhelming amount of negative imagery, stories and content on a daily basis.

It is important to remember that emotional trauma can take many forms. A traumatic event can be something that happened to you, or something you saw happen to someone else. A group of Microsoft employees recently filed a lawsuit to recover compensation for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of exposure to traumatic information on the job. They are arguing that they have experienced intense, long-lasting trauma from the extensive exposure to the graphic content they were required to review.

PTSD is a mental health issue that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing emotionally traumatic events such as combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. There are some things that make it more likely that someone will develop PTSD — for example, intense or long-lasting trauma, sustaining serious injury from a traumatic event, or experiencing a strong reaction or response to an event (like shaking, throwing up, or feeling distant from your surroundings). It’s also more common to develop PTSD after certain types of trauma. Military combat and sexual assault are two examples. Unfortunately, everyone responds differently to situations, so there is no way to predict who will develop PTSD and who will not

Is there a way to rewind the clock and “unsee” a traumatic event or image? My short answer is, “No you can’t.” We have little control over blocking something out once we’ve seen it. Memories encode through our subconscious thanks to a very complicated system of neurochemicals in our brain. All of this happens automatically within our autonomic nervous system.

So, what can we do when we are exposed to a traumatic event? We must wait for time to help the memory fade. This happens through a process of decay involving a very gradual breaking down of synapses and additional memories coming in to replace the most recent. If we are unable to avoid additional exposure to the trauma, the memory will be continually strengthened, thus delaying the decay process.

The problem will remain. The reality is we will continue to have disturbing, illegal or emotionally disturbing content online. Companies such as Microsoft have tried to be mindful of the need to reduce this exposure for the public and created a process to manage it. Ultimately, the human brain cannot manage the exposure to this information without having some reaction. Ultimately, we don’t have the capability to “unsee” or quickly forget what emotionally impacts us.

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