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Autoplaying Evil: When Social Media Images Damage Our Souls

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While mankind hasn’t invented new sins in centuries, technology has made it possible to create new ways for sin to harm us.

Take, for example, the seemingly innocuous auto-playing video. The feature has long been a common annoyance on social media. But more recently it’s become weaponized, and used to inflict trauma. Many people learned this the hard way after the terrorist attack last week in New Zealand, when the gunman live-streamed the killings to Facebook.

According to Facebook, the video of the attack was first reported to moderators 29 minutes after the stream began, and 12 minutes after the live feed ended. Initially, fewer than 200 people watched the footage during the live broadcast, and it was viewed only about 4,000 times in total before being taken down. But a spokesperson for the social media platform says that within 24 hours of the attack the company had removed 300,000 copies of the video and blocked 1.2 million copies from being uploaded.

The macabre video was also continuously uploaded on other platforms. As Ian Bogost, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, writes,

When I started catching up on the shooting this morning, I stumbled upon the video of the massacre searching for news. I didn’t intend to watch it, but it autoplayed in my Twitter search results, and I couldn’t look away until it was too late. I wish I’d never seen it, but I didn’t even get a chance to ponder that choice before Twitter forced it upon me. The internet is a Pandora’s box that never had a lid.

Trauma by Autoplay

By seeing these images—whether by choice or by accident—we are exposing ourselves to images that could be causing media-based secondary trauma. “When you watch a violent video of mass shootings and other violence, you increase your chances of developing vicarious traumatization,” psychologist Stephanie Sarkis says.

Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional distress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. In secondary or indirect trauma, the traumatizing event experienced by a person becomes a traumatizing event for someone who relates to them—such as a first responder, nurse, doctor, or mental health-care worker—and sees or hears descriptions of the trauma. Through the use of media, such as video and imagery, we are able to see the traumatizing event or its aftermath for ourselves—even when we don’t want to.

The result is we may feel some of the same effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that would be experienced by those directly traumatized. Some of the effects can include intrusive re-experiencing of the traumatic material, avoidance of trauma triggers and emotions, and negative changes in beliefs and feelings.

Some Things Can’t Be Unseen

The idea that we may be able to get “PTSD by proxy” may seem far-fetched. But there is significant evidence that the damage caused by media-based secondary trauma is not only real but also long-lasting. For example, a recent paper published in the journal American Psychologist examined adults who had chosen to watch a videos of ISIS terrorists beheading a victim and followed their responses several years later.

Those who had watched the videos were more likely to be male, Christian, and unemployed. They were also more likely than the average person to watch more TV and to have a higher lifetime experience of violence. The researchers found that those who’d watched at least part of a video had higher levels of distress and a greater fear of future negative events compared with those that hadn’t watched one. These relationships held after controlling for prior distress, lifetime exposure to violence, and prior fear of negative events.

The researchers concluded that “watching graphic coverage may exacerbate preexisting fears and increase psychological symptomatology, demonstrating the negative psychological impact of viewing graphic media produced by terrorists.”

As for the long-lasting effect of traumatic images, I can attest firsthand. Nearly 25 years ago an acquaintance thought it would be amusing to email me a disturbing image. Fortunately, this was the era of dial-up, and I was able to close my email before the slow-loading image finished loading. Although I had only seen a glimpse of the image, it still haunts me nearly two decades later. The effect is like a spiritual attack on one’s soul.

Turn Your Eyes

The best way to protect yourself from seeing unwanted images and video on social media is to avoid social media. But too few of us are willing to make that commitment. The second-best option is to adjust the settings on those platforms to avoid autoplaying videos and sensitive material from being injected into your feed.

On Twitter, under the setttings ensure the “Hide sensitive content” box is checked and that “Display media that may contain sensitive content” is unchecked. On your smartphone, check Twitter’s settings and click on “Data usage.” Then, set the “Video autoplay” option to “Never.” On Facebook, go to the “Videos” section under settings and switch “Auto-Play Videos” to “off.” On the mobile app settings, scroll down until you see the “Media and contacts” section, click “Videos and Photos,” and then turn off autoplay. (David Murphy has additional helpful suggestions.)

Another way to guard our hearts is to refrain from searching out traumatizing media. In the study of people who watched the beheading videos, many who fully or partially watched said they did so because they wanted to gain information and verify that the videos existed, or wanted to satisfy their curiosity about what was in them.

Americans have a toxic relationship with the “news,” and many of us think watching traumatizing images is a necessary task of becoming a fully informed citizen. This type of mindset was destructive enough in the era when we consumed news once per day. But the never-ending news cycle has conditioned us to expect to deal with traumatic news—and the accompanying imagery—at almost every waking moment. The result is that many of us are exposing ourselves to media-based secondary trauma on an almost daily basis.

Such exposure is not good for our souls. As Proverbs tells us, “Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are human eyes (27:20, NIV). Instead of allowing ourselves to be traumatized we should, like the Psalmist, say to God, “Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word” (Ps. 119:37).

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