Call It Like It Is...Is It Digital Trauma?
In a previous exploration The Digital Apple: Exposing the Mental Health Crisis of Teenage Girls in Our Brave New World, I tried to peel back the layers of the digital age's negative impact on our young generation's mental well-being. (I recommend you read it first). I imagine you were just as shocked as I was by the sobering statistics. Yet, with the horrific local news of a 13-year-old taking her life, I’m beginning to ponder if this is not something even more? Something that deserves a name, a label. Are we experiencing a widespread "digital trauma" diagnosis affecting the next generation?
To my knowledge, there is not any talks of a psychological diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) directly related to the use of social media or the digital age among our teenagers. PTSD is a specific mental health condition that typically results from exposure to traumatic events involving a real threat to life or physical safety, such as combat experiences, accidents, or acts of violence.
However, I’m curious if the mounting evidence of a growing mental health crisis among teenagers shares striking parallels with PTSD-esque “trauma responses.” The rising rates of depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicide are undeniable signs of distress. These are not merely the ordinary challenges of adolescence; they seem to carry the weight of what I’m just tentatively calling "digital trauma," maybe "social trauma?" (Not sure, your thoughts are welcomed.)
In "The Digital Apple," I explored the strong and growing correlation between excessive social media use and the prevalence of anxiety and depression among teenage girls. Instagram, with its meticulously curated and idealized images, emerged as a particular concern, fostering unhealthy self-images and body dysmorphia. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, later validated these concerns by categorizing social media's impact as a "profound risk of harm” in his alarming 19-page advisory report.
I’m wondering if this notion of “Digital Trauma” resonates with you?
“Digital Trauma Triggers”
Online Bullying: A Silent Digital Terror
Online bullying, a silent terror of the digital age, intertwines with this emerging concept of "digital trauma." Aubreigh, a 13-year-old in our community, tragically took her life, leaving behind a heartbroken family. Her mother revealed that online bullying played a significant role in her daughter's loss of hope. Aubreigh's story is a chilling reminder of how online interactions can turn into a fatal nightmare for vulnerable young minds and leave a broken-hearted family to navigate painful grief for the rest of their lives.
Online bullying is not an isolated incident. Many teenagers face relentless harassment and cruelty in the digital realm. The consequences of bullying can be severe, often leading to feelings of helplessness, shame, and despair. For teenagers like Aubreigh, it becomes a "digital trauma trigger," a source of distress that compounds the challenges they already face. I mentioned in a follow-up blog to "The Digital Apple" the recent tragedy of the 16-year-old from our home state who was catfished and sextorted and as a result took his life. Again, these are not isolated. There are many more “faces” to this. And upon further research, I discovered as of 2021 suicide amongst 10-14-year-olds has moved from the third leading cause of death to the second leading cause of death. It is also the 2nd leading cause of death for 25-34-year-olds as well as the third highest for 15-25-year-olds.
Being Triggered By Fear of Missing Out
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is another insidious aspect of the digital age that can exacerbate “digital trauma.” Constantly connected to social media, teenagers are bombarded with snapshots of their peers' seemingly perfect lives. This unending stream of curated images can lead to feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. When I was 13 I did not know I didn’t get invited to the weekend in Gulf Shores until Monday morning in homeroom when the group returned with airbrushed Gulf Shores t-shirts. Imagine being a teen today: As soon as the party starts there is a literal avalanche of posting, sharing, and resharing. If you were not invited you know in seconds and have to see and re-see the exclusion as a flood of re-occurring reminders. The pressure to measure up and the injury from being left out contributes to the emotional turmoil that defines "digital trauma."
Body Image Issues: The Digital Hall of Mirrors
The digital world serves as a darkened haunted house hall of mirrors, reflecting not only idealized, photo-shopped images but also distorted self-perceptions and body dysmorphia. Young girls, in particular, grapple with body image concerns magnified by social media's portrayal of literally "fake" beauty standards. Comparison culture fuels a never-ending cycle of disillusion, contributing to a sense of inadequacy which is damaging to self-worth. These body image issues are intricately woven into the fabric of "digital trauma."
Digital Addiction: The Relentless Scroll
Digital addiction, a relentless dark companion of the digital age, plays its role in this emerging narrative. The addictive allure of endless scrolling and notifications can hijack the attention and time of teenagers, often to their detriment. It fosters a sense of dependency on the digital realm, disrupting offline life and exacerbating feelings of isolation and anxiety. In that way, our kids are constantly self-feeding their own “digital trauma triggers" and missing out on the connections right in front of them opting instead for the Alice in Wonderland Digital World.
COVID-19 and Isolation: A Double-Edged Sword
The COVID-19 pandemic thrust the world into a new deeper realm of digital dependence. Lockdowns and social distancing measures led to increased reliance on digital devices for communication and entertainment. While technology-enabled connectivity during a time of physical separation, it also deepened the sense of isolation, especially when face-to-face social interactions became rare. And it seems our teens are not coming “back” from this prolonged isolation, but instead falling further and further down the digital rabbit hole.
This idea I’m pondering of "digital trauma" experienced by today's youth is certainly an evolving and growing phenomenon that's difficult to fully unpack and even harder to look down the road and see the fully blown consequences. "Digital Trauma" encompasses the mental and emotional scars left by excessive social media use, the sleepless nights spent scrolling through screens, the isolation felt in a world of virtual connections, the torment of online bullying, the persistent anxiety of FOMO, the distorted self-images fostered by body image issues, the addictive nature of digital devices, and much, much more.
So, I guess I’m asking you? Are we indeed witnessing the birth of "digital trauma?" While maybe it’s not going to get a direct diagnosis of PTSD (at least not yet), I think we are witnessing trauma-like responses directly correlated to the pressures and pitfalls of the brave new digital world. The rising rates of depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicide are alarming signs that something is bad, bad wrong. Call it what you want, we cannot ignore this. These responses are not just bruises left on a tender apple's skin but are becoming hundreds of "little" deep cuts. And eventually, it’s just too many cuts. Rest In Eternal Peace, Aubreigh, a precious child gone too soon.
I don’t want to end on a sour “apple” note. And I must acknowledge there's also a positive side to social media. I love "hearting" my friends' fun stuff, and conducting research online, and of course, you found this because of the "reach" of social media. :D But...there's a dark side, too. So this is also a call to action. I’m ringing the alarm bell. Ding, ding! We must collectively acknowledge there IS a negative impact of excessive social media use and screen time on our young people, regardless if we label it as “digital trauma” or not. For help for parents click here for a follow-up to “Exposing the Digital Apple" I wrote- Empowering Parents: Action Steps to Safeguarding Youth Mental Health In A Digital World.