As the situation in Israel and Palestine continues to unfold, people all around the world are at risk of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) due to being exposed to countless graphic images and videos on social media, the news, and radio.

“As more people become exposed to social media outlets, the rates of PTSD are likely to rise as this level of exposure can trigger intrusive images—in this day and age we can witness more than ever before,” says Shabnam Pervez, GlobalData analyst and psychology postgraduate.

Digital exposure and PTSD

Clinical associate professor psychiatrist at the New York Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr Gail Saltz, highlighted that “Visual images, more so than something that you heard or something that you read, tend to stick in your mind rather like a movie. And they can become intrusive images that you can’t get out of your mind.”

However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—the handbook psychologists all around the world use to diagnose mental disorders, fails to include how digital exposure can lead to PTSD, says Pervez. To qualify under the DSM-5’s criteria for PTSD, one must witness trauma, learn that a relative was exposed to a trauma, or become indirectly exposed to aversive details of the trauma in the course of professional duties.

While the PTSD elicited by digital media is something the DSM does not consider, it is certainly able to trigger a stress response similar to that of PTSD. Associate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) lecturer at the University of Exeter and Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner, Yahya Delair adds “While the DSM-5 does not currently address online exposure as a cause of PTSD, it is vital to recognize the potential impact of graphic content on social media viewers’ mental health. Understanding these dynamics is crucial in today’s digital age, where recurrences of traumatic content can affect individuals”. 

What can be done

So, what can be done? While the seemingly logical solution would be to eradicate all media outlets and hide under a rock, that is not a feasible solution for most. A realistic intervention to reduce exposure would be limiting time spent reading the news and social media—or even limiting the news outlets you view until things settle.

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However, it is important to note that even short bursts of traumatic social media exposure can still trigger a stress response.

It may be a viable idea to channel one’s stress into something positive and productive. Instead of frequenting media outlets that may feature distressing images, looking into ways of supporting the cause—through charitable acts, voluntary work, donations, or joining communities—would be a good way to keep stress levels in check. Secondary trauma is not something that should be taken lightly. If digital media is fostering negative emotions; it may be viable to cut it out permanently or seek mental health support.