Jennifer Fugo doesn’t need to see photos to remember what happened on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. She lived it.
Fugo was a college student at the Parsons School of Design in New York City at the time. She witnessed the burning towers, ash-covered streets, and people running for their lives. The same images and clips that flashed across TV, the internet, and print publications were a haunting reality for her.
That’s why each year on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Fugo delivers a request on social media: “I respectfully ask you to consider that some people who were in NYC and lived through this horrendous ordeal like me don’t want to spend the next week blocking all of your posts because it’s upsetting to go back and relive that horrible day.”
“9/11 was literally my worst nightmare come true while living in New York City during college,” Fugo, a clinical nutritionist in Philadelphia, says. Nearly 3,000 people died and more than 6,000 others were injured on 9/11. “It has taken years for the PTSD embedded within me to slowly dissipate, but some things –– like seeing the twin towers on fire every year on the anniversary of the attack –– are still upsetting.”
Social media and its traumatizing impact
Shawna Young, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Indianapolis, Indiana, says Fugo’s experience with articles or images on social media triggering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t uncommon. People recently impacted by the devastating hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, for example, may also find themselves suffering long after homes are rebuilt and cities recover from the catastrophes. The same goes for survivors of mass shootings, like those of the Las Vegas tragedy, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
It’s not only people who experience the trauma firsthand that are affected. A 2015 study on the effects of viewing violent news events found that 22 percent of its 189 participants were significantly affected. These individuals hadn’t experienced trauma before. They weren’t present at the traumatic events, either. But they still scored high on clinical measures of PTSD. People who reported watching these events online more often were most affected.
Dr. Gerard Lawson, a licensed professional counselor and president of the American Counseling Association, says the nature of PTSD is often misunderstood. Many people might associate PTSD as a response to a direct exposure to a traumatic event. Even though that’s frequently the case, many individuals who witness a traumatic event can also experience PTSD.
“One of the things that is unique to social media is that everyone can contribute their perspective to the story,” Lawson says. “So whereas traditional media outlets use some editorial judgment about whether or not certain images may be too graphic, social media has no such filters. The other complication is that social media is also adept at providing us with the constant flow of that sort of information, and it is easy to become overwhelmed.”
Social media’s saving grace
But in the aftermath of tragedy, social media can be an unexpectedly powerful resource as well. Rebecca Reinbold, a public relations consultant in St. John, Virgin Islands, has personally experienced digital sharing’s pros and cons. Her family is beginning to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Irma ravaged and damaged their new home.
Reinbold and her 4-year-old son evacuated to Los Angeles when news of the hurricane surfaced. She admits that social media has proven to be a double-edged sword for her and her neighbors. The visual reminders are a painful blow to her new reality. But she says social media has also been integral in helping residents coordinate evacuation efforts before the storm. Social media also raised awareness for critical aid after the storm passed.
“Numerous pictures flooding your news feed of the destruction and devastation can make it hard to feel positive or even know how or where to start rebuilding your old life,” she says.
“[But] it has allowed displaced residents who evacuated to have a sense of camaraderie and come together and share in this horrible and life-changing experience. It has allowed for the sharing of good news and glimmers of hope, like people sharing plywood and supplies, or local restaurants, like The Longboard and Cruz Bay Landing, who have been providing free meals for residents since day one,” Reinbold says.
St. John native and retired basketball player Tim Duncan also used his social media influence. He’s raised more than $2 million for relief efforts, pleading in a blog post “not to forget about the Virgin Islands — and others in the Caribbean.”
In a day and age in which it’s nearly impossible to disconnect, social media’s role is a complicated, evolving one.
First-person accounts and experts warn of the emotional stress digital sharing can create for people hoping to leave their traumatic experiences in the past. But when done with care, it can grow awareness and relief efforts in times of need.
Perhaps a good rule of thumb here is to use an old saying: “Less is more.”