Shock Factor

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When trigger warnings are not enough, nor are they a valid reason to potentially traumatise an audience

When trigger warnings are not enough, nor are they a valid reason to potentially traumatise an audience

Gaming is inherently and mostly safe, as is the world we live in.

Our nervous system responses have and are increasingly tapped into by the skewed narrative that is available through social media and new media outlets. Research from leading academics/scientists and researchers such as Steven Pinker has highlighted that as a society we have become less violent as a species and that the rates of homicide have decreased. However, this doesn’t sell news stories, ​does it? This narrative doesn’t keep your nervous system in high-stress​ response state, commonly known as fight/flight. It’s unlikely that you will believe in trust and safety if your newsfeed tells you otherwise. Gaming and the ‘negative issues’ that exist are often collected within this narrative. I write about these and know they do exist, however they exist in a small minority of cases and some of them are myths, ​not facts. Current myths that are being argued by academics relating to gaming are focused on the hyperbolic claims that you will or have likely read online or in a newspaper. These are gaming does not (mostly) create addiction or disorders. violent video games do not produce violent gamers in the real world. The benefits of gaming outweigh the very few negative issues that we researchers are interested in and exploring to date. I have a number of podcasts on this subject matter so please go there to learn more.

You see I am a trauma specialist and I work with children, adolescents and adults. I work in a practice whereby I know the impact of being a witness to another person’s trauma through and through and its why I teach on the subject of vicarious (cyber)trauma and self-care in the profession of being with and around trauma. Traumatic means many different things and what is traumatic to one person is not always traumatic to another; You can’t or don’t get to decide that for another person, even if you are a professional. You are not the receiver of the image, video or text. Writing trigger warning actually creates a propensity for some to press play and watch or read/view. If there’s a slim chance that you will traumatise someone why do it? (see my previous blog on Cybertrauma by professionals for the why people actually do this). Educating on the dangers to look out for online know we need to educate parents, professionals and other adults on the dangers we need to look out for in terms of young people and their online activities and perhaps we can also educate young people on these issues.

However, we must remember that even if your chronological age is 20, 30, 70 or 15 you may not emotionally be capable of processing images, videos and sound without having a traumatic response to that media. You may also have a background in which you have your own trauma and viewing material that is uncomfortable or traumatic may jiggle, unsettle or trigger your own nervous system stress response in a traumatic way. You can be traumatised by hearing about a traumatic event. If this can happen to an adult with a fully formed and mature brain imagine the impact on a developing brain of an adolescent.

Today a video went live that contains many Cybertrauma issues. Whilst it comes from a place of best intent by the producers of the video it contains victim-blaming language (such as the phrase “if only he had believed us” this is a trauma trigger for victims), it contains images of a grieving parent (mirror neuron responses, empathy and trauma triggers and is meant to create sadness and outrage in you- it’s a manipulation of your nervous system) and it contains a very scary message aimed at children and young people, yet the film has a suggested viewing rating of 15. This message, which is about trusting online friends, suggests that YOU (the child) are responsible for knowing who your online friends really are and every aspect about them and their abilities and patterns of potential grooming behaviours. Yet this grooming set of behaviours is not explained in the video, which leaves a deficit of knowledge about what to look out for, yet insinuates that you need to know this. How confusing for adolescents! Do you really know, or should that be could you ever really know who everyone is you talk to online Do you really know, or should that be could you ever really know who everyone is you talk to online​ when this number could be into the thousands or millions as the number of online gamers is actually huge… The concept of online friends is still in the infancy of research questions about this phenomenon and one that adults quite often believe means the same thing as it did before the internet existed. How does a young person know what to ‘lookout for’ when this is omitted from the educative video? How can they be responsible for something that isn’t within their control? Hence the word victim, which means something happened to you, that was out of your control. This video WILL be and HAS been shown to young people and no doubt will hit the million mark on views on YouTube very quickly. This of course will increase traffic to the makers of the film, who have previously created a number of films like this with all of the above issues. This will potentially win awards, be talked about as a great resource for education and yet the issues above miss the very important message as it is disguised as one that young people will be ‘fed’ as their responsibility.

Hyper-Rational Thinking Patterns

As young people think differently and have hyper-rational thinking patterns this message will be lost to normative maturational processes. To use a phrase you may have heard before: ‘it is likely to go in one ear and out the other’, but the trauma, oh that will be processed and may create further issues. I can tell you from the adolescents in my practice that this occurs and we as the adults show them it in the name of…scaring them into responsibility? How odd.

Sharing the trend adds to the algorithm

When you share that image/video of the trend, you add to the existing algorithm of the ‘trend’ and if it is an intention of perpetrators of a crime to advertise their product, i.e. to entice children to find out about their videos or games then the best people to do this for them already exist in a fear-driven world and they are the adults. Children do not have this advertising power, you do and so do schools, child-related clubs, professionals who support children and other fear-driven​ parents. You literally advertise for them for free. Each and every time.

I wonder how many under 15’s will see this as it’s​ on YouTube? How many shares will take place over social media platforms in the very same fear-driven​ act that made ‘Momo’ so famous? I wonder how many children (adults and people with anxiety) will have nightmares​ become afraid of everyone they now speak to online? (what about the real world, where grooming exists too?). I wonder if this really was the best way to communicate this message?

Perhaps we need a rethink… actually,​ I’m suggesting that this is actually what needs to happen, pronto.

Shock/Horror, Shame, Fear and Victim-blaming are not the way to educate. We can do better.

The ‘Human algorithm’ that schools and parents feed through fear concerning social media ‘trends’

The ‘Human algorithm’ that schools and parents feed through fear concerning social media ‘trends’

The ‘Human algorithm’ that schools and parents feed through fear concerning social media ‘trends’ How perpetrators of crime are relying on you to advertise their products for free; and you do. How you may be adding to the online harm issues for children and young people without being Free advertising used to be a dream for large companies who wanted to sell their products to as many people as possible in the shortest timeframe possible. Finding a slot between popular TV programs would mean that you got the biggest bang for your buck. If the advert was good people would talk about it to their family and friends. Now all you need is a video or image and some people with internet access and hey presto the digital highway of cyberspace/internet can send this to more people than you could count. Unlike a TV ad, this image or video can repeat many times on many platforms in cyberspace and so the exponential impact becomes a very cheap option. But what if you wanted to recruit children to buy your product? Surely you would need something that could be accessed by children, talked about by children and also would become a hot topic for adults to talk about, therefore keeping the fire burning in the engine of mass impact. Forget children’s TV, the area that would get you the most traction is likely to utilise somewhere children

I suspect the two most ‘popular’ areas that children currently frequent are schools and the internet, namely apps that are deemed suitable for children such as YouTube kids? Whilst this is slightly tongue in cheek as these are very likely the two most popular areas aside from Family homes there is a significant factor here; If a child has YouTube kids app then there is an adult in the house who owns that device and is likely to use social media.

Creating a moral panic of fear driven posts

Here is the formula for a perpetrator of the crime to use this ‘algorithm’ (not the computer type but one of human behaviour), to create a pandemic of fear and curiosity in children and is resulting in a moral panic of fear-driven posts that advertise a perpetrators ‘idea’ or ‘product’ for absolutely nothing!

The latest ‘challenge’, ‘game’ or ‘threat’ on social media

Recently I have been inundated with a plethora of messages from family, friends and social media contacts regarding a ‘challenge’ or ‘scary video’ or ‘suicide threat’ dependent upon which social media platform you read the story on. This ‘game’ (which I’m not naming on purpose because I’m not adding to the internet algorithm where possible), it has an image of a face that reminds me of the wife in Beetlejuice, has enlarged eyes and an elongated face. I’m not here to discuss the validity of this new ‘game’ as I don’t entirely trust any of the reports I have read anywhere and I saw this shared in Australia a few months ago, with the same impact. It’s now here in the UK and will no doubt be replaced by another soon enough. Nor am I discussing within this blog the issue of children who have been privy to seeing this image/game whilst unsupervised as I think parents get a bad enough rap as it is regarding their digital parenting skills. To be fair this is likely to be so few actual instances of children engaging in this behaviour in comparison to the postings currently on social media.

The human nature algorithm

Here’s where the human nature algorithm adds to this issue and why I’m writing this blog;

When you share the images/videos of the games/pranks/dares/challenges you may create a level of vicarious trauma where images are seen by people who may not have been prepared to see this in their social media feeds. You are responsible for what you share, and I am aware this is often done without considering the impact if you are sharing for a reason that you think is important. When you take a moment to stop and think about what this share may result in then this is called ‘mentalising’, or ‘theory of mind’ or ‘empathy’ (it’s a factor of Emotional Intelligence). It takes time to stop, reflect and consider what you are doing and why and when you are in an emotional place this skill is lessened. Panic and fear are powerful emotions for disrupting empathy.

Children are curious

The images or video stills tend to be quite large and have a well-designed novelty factor (as intended by the designer of the product) and these can be seen by children looking over your shoulder, on a device belonging to someone else, their social media feed and on occasions on newsletters from schools. Children are curious to know what you are talking about or looking at (Think of when you try to have a conversation with a friend in the playground or kitchen?). Children are curious and where they feel they may not get a satisfactory answer from you or another adult they will ask another child or in today’s world, they may well google it. If your children, ask being transparent and age-appropriate in your responses helps alleviate this. You do not have to scare your children with the full article details (which may not be true anyway), however, to help them develop their critical thinking skills about the validity of the post and to discuss how they would let you know about issues like this, you need to be in communication with them from the outset.

Sharing the trend adds to the algorithm

When you share that image/video of the trend, you add to the existing algorithm of the ‘trend’ and if it is an intention of perpetrators of a crime to advertise their product, i.e. to entice children to find out about their videos or games then the best people to do this for them already exist in a fear-driven world and they are the adults. Children do not have this advertising power, you do and so do schools,child-related​d clubs, professionals who support children and other fear-driven​ parents. You literally advertise for them for free. Each and every time.

So what can or ought we do?

I’m not saying don’t share this information to raise awareness. I’m saying check facts, check the leading internet organisations websites and check reputable sources that discuss e-safety/online safety issues… with actual facts.

Why children look at scary things on the internet; Why vicarious Cybertrauma/trauma is a thing!

I have a previous blog that covers why children look at scary things on the internet, why vicarious Cybertrauma/trauma is a thing and I podcast about issues like this and covered similar topics in 2017 and 2018 with Alan Mackenzie who is a fabulous internet safety adviser, where we looked at young people trends and YouTube.  This really isn’t a new thing, however, the way the recent issue has been shared has left me silently in awe of the ‘maker’ of this trend as it went viral in the UK within a few days and still continues to be shared, without them lifting a finger to a keyboard or paying an advertiser. Each time the story gets added to and increases in platforms used/shared and a narrative that drives fear.

A new phenomenon of “pass on” whispers..

Our fear feeds the monster and I am already hearing about it in therapy from children who heard adults talking about it in the playground and I have seen so many hyperbolic additions to this new Chinese whisper phenomenon. (Some from companies who claim to inform parents about e-safety issues).

Fear is the greatest driver for human algorithmic behaviour

Become aware of it and you can work out a way to inform rather than scare. Shock tactics do not work, nor have they ever been a great way to educate. They come from a deep-rooted place of fear and feelings of incompetency. So like crossing the road, STOP, LOOK carefully and LISTEN for your own fear monster. Fact check and consider how you can share this information to educate not scare. If you find you’re thinking this way. Stop again and breathe and check-in with yourself what your fear is, because like the challenges the bogey man just got under your skin. You probably know why and I’m not here to shame anyone.

Relevant links:


CyberSynapse Podcast / Vlog –
Influential behaviour on primary school children – ‘Challenges/Dares or Peer pressure?’ – 16th December 2018 – 17th December 2017

Presenters, Media and Conferences – Cybertrauma by Experts; The Shock Factor!

Is it naiveté, ego, traumology or unconsciously malicious?


I have a very positive view of human beings and believe we are all trying to do our best in whatever our dharma, focus, cause, profession and agenda is. Really. We are not intentionally trying to harm others in our communication and teachings. At least I hope not.

But, without knowledge of what harm is and how it happens some professionals are falling under the spell of ‘shock tactics’ in order to get the message across. As a recipient of some of this type of training, I can say that it has never worked with me and I suspect that this is actually the true case for most human beings who are subjected to this kind of teaching.

This year I have attended a number of conferences and teaching days and watched a debate about sexual exploitation films shown to children that also fall under this remit. At one particular conference, a friend and college of mine from the world of e-safety summed up this particular mistake that is regularly made by professionals in one word; “oops”. Indeed, it is. We had both been sat watching the presentation when the professional showed an image that was extremely graphic as part of their ‘teaching’. Hint there was no warning given that this image would be displayed, nor for how long either. It made one audience member ‘gip’ (nearly vomit).

This colleague of mine is a very good friend and has learned about cybertrauma and the impact it has and after a discussion between ourselves about this incident I said I would write a blog to explain this for other people as I believe it is an area that needs addressing, again, mainly because this is my research area and because I have the knowledge to share so that you can question this practice in others. This is not an attack on people who have genuinely and unintentionally made this mistake, nor those who will continue to do as they may not be challenged. This is about challenging those who learn about this effect and continue to engage in this behaviour for the latter three reasons named above. I am aware there are a number of factors as to why people engage in this behaviour and it’s probably only a forgivable mistake when its naiveté rather than the other three of the four reasons named above. However, if not challenged professionals may continue to engage in this behaviour and cause distress to their peers, colleagues and children.

Allow me to explain the what and the why of this mistake and the reasons behind it.
Firstly, I have attended a number of days whereby the speaker is teaching, discussing or talking about a particular topic that they are passionate about and very often highly immersed in. During this talk, there is a PowerPoint or video on display to support the teaching. Lo and behold the mistake is made mid-flow, during the process without due care and attention and the not knowing about how this will affect people.

A video or image or conversation is shown/talked about in detail that is shocking, traumatic and graphic. Without a warning of what is to come. I have watched those people around me react to this kind of image/video or sound with varying degrees of trauma, disgust, revolt, horror, frozen, fear, surprise and other formats of stress reactions. And these people are adults…. imagine what it is like for a child to watch a video that has graphic, violent or re-enactments of a trauma/distressing scene. They react much more than adults often in ways that are delayed; due to the age and stage of their brain development and the brain state they are in when viewing these images/films. I won’t complicate matters here with a heap of neuroscience, safe to say children and young people (up to approx. 25 years of age) are not mature enough to ‘handle’ these kinds of images/films.
(Hence my support of the #NomoreCSE films campaign as children are more susceptible to this kind of trauma- see my previous blog on this)

To sum up my friend’s reaction to one of those occasions at a conference … ‘oops’ doesn’t cut it. This is not acceptable behaviour from professionals to decide that they can show a video or an image or talk in detail without first checking in with themselves that this image, video or topic could/might be distressing with the audience. And, if it has the potential to be any one of these then not showing it is the only ethical and moral choice. If the presenter was to ask, even then they may get people responding with its okay as they do not know what the image or video will evoke in them and they may want to please the presenter and not be seen as a spoilsport/weak/wuss etc. The speaker does not get to decide whether something is “OK” to show/talk about. Unless they have already decided that it is okay in their mind. Which up until now, without challenge, professionals are doing exactly this. Some even after challenge.

When I am speaking, I teach about this concept and why the above is not ok (you’ll have to book me if you want to know more) – but in succinct form here- it’s about choice/consent. As a speaker, you are making a choice for people about their stress tolerance and limits of their trauma histories and we know from statistics that in your audience you will have approximately 40-60% (potentially higher %) of people who have a form of trauma in their history and the other percentage of people are also entitled to a choice about what they view/hear. In short as a professional; do not use material that is highly emotive, shocking, traumatic, graphic or sexual without checking in with your audience before showing it or talking about it and even then, consider this a censor check about putting your ego above the due care and attention of the human beings in front of you. Censor/edit or remove where you can and allow people to talk to you directly if they want to know more as this is then their choice to engage with this material. Autonomy, agency, curiosity and choice belong to the human being and you cannot suppose/assume for them.

Furthermore, be aware people may ‘opt’ to watch as they are in a high-pressure situation and historical trauma can render a person to “freeze and please” (A common response in children)

So why does this happen? In short for a number of reasons and I made this mistake early in my career and I didn’t actually show anything at the time. (I learned quickly when an audience member let me know how they felt and this is a very rare response in the moment so kudos to that person who gave me such great insight). I was naïve to the impact of potential trauma before I trained in and around the topic, and I was working with therapists who are trained to work with and hear about this kind of stuff! So, naiveté becomes a one-time incident and professionals could be allowed this mistake under those circumstances I suppose. But more than once and that becomes a choice or?

Some professionals are driven by their ego and want to tell their story i.e., of an issue that has happened to someone (sometimes themselves) and they put far too many details of the trauma narrative in because it makes them look like they are an expert or capable of handling talking about graphic trauma, like a prize of their tolerance levels. Sometimes professionals speak/show these topics because they are deeply caught up in their own trauma- i.e. “traumology” (a word I made up to explain the repetitive preoccupation of trauma narrative in that person’s life). Sometimes and hopefully only a very small number, there are some professionals who actually get a kick out of using this kind of material to traumatise other people as an imbalance of power and to feel superior in some way, rather like a dominant masochist. I suspect there are traumology masochists too.

So what material might be shown/discussed that causes this type of cybertrauma/vicarious trauma? What types of material ought to be censored/peer-reviewed by trauma specialists who are versed in the varying aspects of the delivery of this kind of material and can evidence this with best practice guides/evidenced research?

Videos, Images and detailed talks of the following (not exhaustive list)

Child Sexual Abuse – Child Sexual Exploitation- County Lines- Sexual Violence- Grooming- Youth Produced imagery (previously known as sexting)- Revenge Porn- Murder/Homicide- Suicide- Self-harm (all variants)- Domestic Violence/Abuse- Neglect- Safeguarding- Eating Issues- Mental Health- Bullying- Bereavement- Eating Issues-Radicalisation- Child Abuse- Animal Abuse- Natural Disasters- History- Capital/Corporal Punishment- Crime.
Most of the films produced by Leicester Police for CSA, CSE, Grooming, Rape and Sexual Violence.