Large numbers of people are being traumatised by violent and disturbing photos of news events on social media, research suggests.
Scientists investigated the “vicarious” psychological effect of images relating to distressing events such as the 9/11 Twin Tower terror attacks, the murder of fusilier Lee Rigby, and the disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine McCann.
They found that 22% of 189 randomly chosen study participants were suffering symptoms commonly associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) triggered by what they had seen on Twitter and Facebook.
The most affected appeared to be drawn to the images, watching them over and over again and “re-traumatising themselves”.
PTSD produces symptoms including nightmares, anxiety attacks, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and hyper-vigilance that can sometimes last for years.
It normally afflicts people such as soldiers, police officers, and victims of accidents, crimes and disasters.
But vicarious trauma – known to affect healthcare workers and court jurors – can occur as a result of indirect exposure to other people’s suffering.
Dr Pam Ramsden, from the University of Bradford, who led the new research, said: “Social media has enabled violent stories and graphic images to be watched by the public in unedited horrific detail.
“Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those directly experiencing them may impact on our daily lives.
“In this study we wanted to see if people would experience longer lasting effects such as stress and anxiety, and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorders from viewing these images.”
Study participants scoring high on clinical measures of PTSD had not experienced previous trauma and had only viewed the events on social media.
Dr Ramsden, who presented the findings at the British Psychological Society’s annual meeting in Liverpool, said: “The ones who had been traumatised had consistently viewed these images.
“They were consistently viewing them – looking them up – as if they were drawn to them.
“Previous research has shown that police officers, for example, can become desensitised.
“I expected to find the same thing here, but I saw the exact opposite.
“These people were continually re-traumatising themselves.
“The next thing I want to look into is why this is happening.
“It may be to do with attribution – how people attribute things to themselves.
“Seeing something sad or moving might chime with aspects of their personal experience.”
Parents, for instance, were more likely to be disturbed by news items such as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, she said.
Stories about the missing three-year-old invariably include heart-rending pictures of the girl’s face.
“People who don’t have children are not so affected by news items about children,” Dr Ramsden added.
“But if you experience being a parent then you understand what it would be like to lose a child.
“Madeleine McCann’s abduction happened a long time ago but it’s still resonating with parents.”
Dr Ramsden suspected the harmful effects of distressing social media news images were going unreported and possibly being mis-labelled as depression instead of trauma.
She said: “There is a certain percentage of the population who do naturally overcome PTSD but also a certain percentage who never do.
“It can completely alter your life, affecting your employment and general outlook.
“Higher levels of alcoholism and drug abuse are associated with PTSD because of self-medication.
“Before social media, you could decide whether to watch distressing items on the news.
“Now these things just come at you all the time, and once you see an image it can’t be erased from your mind.
“I don’t know what can be done.
“Unless you get off Twitter and Facebook you can’t stop it.
“With increased access to social media and the internet via tablets and smartphones we need to ensure that people are aware of the risks of viewing these images, and that appropriate support is available.
“People should be warned that if we’re viewing this material, damage can occur to certain individuals.”