All The Messed-Up Images We Look At Online Might Be Giving Us PTSD

Twitter have closed accounts sharing pictures of James Foley, but why do we feel compelled to look at these kinds of images? And what damage is it doing us?


by Hayley Campbell |
Published on

I’d say I spent 68 per cent of my internet time circa 1998 on But my tit hurts every time I think about the photo I found (it wasn’t even a real one – it was Photoshopped, I’m pretty sure) when I was looking for the comic Star Trek: Infestation four years ago.

Instead of Captain Kirk and some zombies I found a photo of what had supposedly happened to some lady’s baps after buying a bra in a foreign country. (‘Infestation’ + ‘Trek’?). I’m not looking it up for you, not even for a full Yorkie, but from my crystal clear memory it was like her boob had become a seedpod for worms. I think of it every time I put my bra on, which is loads. I reckon I’ve put a bra on 1,519 times since I saw that photo.

Then two months ago I watched a ‘rosebudding’ porno after reading about the literally shitty after-effects of extreme anal porn. Here’s the article, but believe me when I say: you don’t want to watch the video of the honeybee and her stinger. The shitty after-effects of watching this video are: I think about it every time I sit on the toilet. I wonder if all my junk will fall out. Teenagers now are complaining that porn is too easy to stumble on and only when I think of that bee’s gaping honeypot am I liable to agree with them.

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In the ’90s, I looked at this stuff because the internet was new and I could, and I had a whole hour to fill before the modem disconnected. Obviously the internet’s changed wildly since Mel B’s solo career was featured on a NOW CD – I can’t tell you if people are still doing cybersex in Yahoo! chatrooms, but I do know that they’re getting their news from places other than ‘the news’. By the time the BBC has their 300-word story up, I’ve already watched it unfold on Twitter.

Twitter can be full of screaming hysteria and fearmongering (the words ‘it’s all kicking off’ have lost all meaning, post-riots) but other times, like with the Ferguson reporting, it’s probably the best thing we have. We’re being shown things as they’re happening, as people get it, as it happens. But we get it raw. There’s no filter. Sometimes all we see is a guy freaking out because some cops shot another guy dead outside his house. We get context later, after we’ve personally freaked out.

We can actually become addicted to the feeling we get when we see go into the internet’s black hole.

But why do we feel compelled to look at pictures or news stories that we know are going to disturb us? Consultant clinical psychologist Janice Hiller believes that we can actually become addicted to the feeling we get when we go into the internet’s black hole.

‘Those kind of images can be exciting and arousing because they pose a risk and, when we view them, powerful chemicals are released in the brain,’ she explains. ‘The risk is, if you continue looking at those kinds of images for too long, it can actually turn into a compulsion and you can become addicted to the shock and excitement you feel when you see them.’ Anyone who has spent hours trawling through Twitter looking at more and more shocking images will be familiar with the feeling.

The rough end of this stick is we end up seeing stuff we do not want or need to see. Britain woke up too late for the majority of us to see the footage of James Foley’s beheading, and by the time I got there, Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, had announced that anyone sharing graphic images would have their accounts frozen. People filled their timelines with pictures of Foley alive and smiling, tagging it #ISISmediablackout to try and flood the horror out of our feeds. If you actively searched for bad things (and I did, I can’t help myself) they were no longer there. There is a backlash about how easy it is to see this stuff, Twitter is listening and they’ve shown they can stop it.

You don’t have to go so far out of your way to see real, immediate, breaking-news horror.

But Twitter is not the internet. There’s still the rest of it sitting there with all the stuff we don’t-want-to-see-but-kind-of-do on it. Writer Nell Frizzell told me she regrets looking up Tupac’s autopsy photos on a night in with her boyfriend (‘The only way you want to see a post-mortem Thug 4 Life is as a shimmering hologram. This is not only vivid, it’s also too intimate’). Everyone could do without the classics – blue waffle, lemon party, tubgirl and goatse – imprinted on the back of their eyelids as they try to sleep at night, and as anyone who image-searched ‘myiasis’ or ‘harlequin baby’ can tell you: sometimes the internet is not fun. But these are all late-night Googles you can totally avoid doing.

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You don’t have to go so far out of your way to see real, immediate, breaking-news horror. Colonel Gaddafi’s dead and bloodied face was on every front page (online and off-) the day after he was executed. When Ian Watkins was sentenced to 35 years in jail for child sex offences, we were invited to read the 13-page Judge’s Sentencing Remarks that detailed exactly what he’d done. When I asked Twitter for the worst thing they’d ever seen on the internet, one person said: 'A photo of an emergency worker in Israel handling a dead child that was not immediately legible as a dead child.’ Twitter didn’t exist then, and he didn’t remember what news outlet it was on. It was just in the news.

The internet is just a channel – it is just that there is more opportunity to share things these days than before. The real issue is post-traumatic stress.

Psychologist Graham Jones studies how people behave online and says: ‘The images, the videos and the text that people read are nothing really to do with the internet – the impact these things could have on people would be the same if they watched them on TV, read them in a book and so on. The internet is just a channel – the impact on people is unlikely to be related to the channel itself... It is just that there is more opportunity to share things these days than before. The real issue is post-traumatic stress.’

The medium is different, the message is the same – it’s just that the reach is massively wider.

But how do we avoid seeing bad stuff? The key, Janice Hiller explains, is taking a proactive approach to what you consume online to make sure you break the compulsive behaviour. ‘One of the simplest things you can do to break the cycle of compulsively looking at images is to time how long you’re spending looking and slowly bring that number down. It’s like someone opening the fridge when they’re on a diet – you need to actvely break the cycle.’

When we scroll through Twitter, do we have to make our eyes go like when we’re trying to see a Magic Eye painting? The problem is only partly the way we use the internet, and mostly the power the media has to shock us and its willingness to do so. Just look at the cover of The New York Post reporting on the Foley story. (Or, y’know, don’t.)

Follow Hayley on Twitter @hayleycampbell

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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