Originally published 26 November, 2018

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. 

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