Graphic imagery and the National Crime Agency’s Actions: a reflection

Originally published 6 December, 2015

Graphic Images and Videos happen to be my most passionate area of research as I think its the most overlooked. IMHO it should not be and here’s one example why…

During the week of 1-6th December 2015, the National Crime Agency decided it was going to take a seemingly “Clockwork Orange” approach to a new campaign for the Cocaine drug trade. The NCA decided that it would be okay to place some photographs of the horror of this trade (outside of the UK from Columbia), which contained (among others) images of a severed head and arms, a set of dead blood-covered bodies, a further set of dead bodies and a young child covered in blood on social media for anyone to see, sorry that’s not exactly how it happened. They posted some photographs onto Facebook and were convinced that by posting a warning that said “Warning Graphic Picture” and limiting the post to 18+ that this would resolve the issue of the pictures being seen by anyone under 18. Of course.

However, there are some major issues here for me as a Psychotherapist, Human, Mother and student in Neuroscience research. Firstly, writing the sentence “We realise these may be upsetting images BUT…its vital to tell the truth” Does not absolve the NCA from posting these images and the damage they can do. It is also a phrase often used by people (in Psychotherapy & relationships) to justify their defensive position. This is because they know deep within themselves that their actions are not really that okay and in this case ethical?

Secondly, it is not okay to post images that are graphic to people over 18 any more than it is to under 18 years of age. This is because the NCA have no way (at all) of knowing who is going to see these images around the world and what those people have within themselves to cope with the images. Moreover having a warning on that the images are graphic would be great IF a) you had a choice about clicking on the image IF you wanted to and B)…you didn’t have the image directly underneath this warning. Because of how our eyes and brains work we automatically read words and have something called peripheral vision which when in a heightened response state, which would indeed be caused by the words WARNING means that our pupils expand and are able to take in  much more information and detail (its part of our survival mechanism and is supposed to work like this!)

So not only are people more acutely aware of the content of the images due to the above reasons there are those with less ability to cope, that is; some people are not resilient, they may have served in the Forces (Military, Emergency or Online) and be hypersensitive to those images, or be PTSD sufferers. (I will gladly speak with the NCA about this topic so they can get a full understanding of how the brain is hyper-reactive to these kinds of images, the damage it can do and the setbacks it can cause which are phenomenal to people who suffer with PTSD symptoms). In short, these people from ALL over the world can see these images and they can be shared and re-shared as this is the power of social media. Therefore these images may well be affecting people outside of the UK also. That is an extremely large responsibility to carry for a campaign that claims it is vital, to tell the truth?”

Furthermore and thirdly, to even think naively for one moment that under 18’s would not see these images highlights the probable lack of real psychological and ethical discussions that went before the sharing of these images. Even if it is necessary that people understand the drug trade and all of the evil behaviours that accompany it, it is NOT okay for the NCA to be the vehicle that decides when/what/who/which under 18’s (and over) should see of theses horrors and graphic images. This is why…

The Under 18’s brain is still growing, forming its architecture and connecting the social and narrative sides together to become a fully formed adult brain. It is NOT therefore fully resilient as an adult to the horror that these images can bear upon this maturational process. It is again not possible to know which under 18’s are capable of bearing the true horror of these images, nor their ability to cope. The ones who are not resilient become traumatised and what we do know about this traumatised brain is; this impacts the growth, ability to communicate, ability to pay attention, contain nightmares, maintain their emotional regulation, listen, read non-verbal communication, maintain relationships with peers and adults, inhibit risk-taking behaviours and play gratification. You know, the things that get children into trouble with families friends, school and the law?

I am shocked that the NCA has not apologised in a meaningful way for these images, more so removed them, further adding to the ever-growing possibility that these can continue to affect a growing number of people. I understand the NCA did not purposefully intend to traumatise people, did they? Was this the intention? If so why? (this feels more like a publicity stunt that wannabe celebs pull?) I do not know if this blog will be seen by anyone in the NCA who can really take a good look at the actions and the impact that I have depicted above. I am aware that it has been said that the NCA did not consult with children organisations before posting the images, however, even if they did, I wonder if they knew about trauma and the brain in this way?

Perhaps an education around these issues would be helpful as I am aware that the Police themselves have many officers who suffer from these kinds of reactions to trauma. In that case, I am here for discussions and the education.

One more point to note is that images like this rarely have the impact intended (the probable original one of shocking people to think about their actions when using, dealing or otherwise in the drug trade), I would suggest reading the neuroscience of torture and why this doesn’t work for those officers who want to learn a little more about this. If the NCA continues to share images like this in future it may well have the opposite effect due to the desensitisation process and how this works. i.e. people may be desensitised to those images (rendering the impact of them null by the way) This whole campaign needed much more thought around it.

I wonder how many children or adults cannot sleep tonight after seeing those images?

Dear Curiosity, Facebook and Graphic Videos………..DO NOT…………

DEAR CURIOSITY,

DONT LOOK!!

SEX!!

NO…DONT LOOK!!

Graphic Media!!

STOP LOOKING!!!

If you are reading this you are either a cat or a human. (Insert well-known phrase about cats and curiosity!)

For the purposes of this blog though let’s assume you’re a human. Who wanted to know what this was about. You were warned though not to look and here you are making your way through the text.

So let me make my blog point clear and begin with the recent news that Facebook is going to add warnings to graphic videos and prevent them from auto-playing to > 18-year-olds until you click that you want to watch it. So don’t do it, no seriously it may shock you, it may offend you or upset you, seriously DONT DO IT! if you are a teenager or younger… YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED!!…. so….DONT DO IT!!!!!

Okay, so now you know that you’re definitely a curious human and you’ve got this far into the text because you might just have made the link that I am now going to elaborate on.

Humans possess characteristics such as curiosity that are intriguing to me to research, communicate to you the reader and also talk about in therapy and here we are:

Humans are nosey and curios to the N’th degree, but do they really want to see/feel/experience what the ‘thing’ is?

Perhaps.

Example 1. Rubbernecking at an accident. Curiosity..Check!

Example 2. There are indeed people who seek out excitement or fear in a form that they can control. It is suggested that children who live with domestic violence, trauma, abuse and those who are not as well developed in Emotional Intelligence which covers areas like cognition, self-control and emotional regulation. (=being able to control their emotions) will seek out experiences that they feel they are in control of and are able to manage, for example, watching a scary movie. Curiosity..Check!

Example 3. Sometimes young people who are not in these environments and would be called ‘Normal’ (whatever that actually means) even seek out the thrill of “not being able to manage, for example, joy riding, roller coasters and drugs. Curiosity..Check!

We know this through the numerous research papers and texts that talk about risk-taking in young people. This is because their brains are going through physical changes from early puberty to approximately 25 years of age and risk-taking is a normal part of this maturation.

Anyway back to the curiosity bit.

Most parents, teachers and anyone who has ever encountered a child will tell you if you say “you cannot”, “you shouldn’t”, “Don’t do it” and so on, the likelihood is a child WILL. Period. And So will Adults.

So Facebook is implementing a system whereby warnings will appear on videos for those that are registered as 18+ (A further discussion to be had here but not now) that contain graphic images or content…WHO ON EARTH WILL BE MONITORING EVERY VIDEO UPLOADED NOW AND IN THE FUTURE?? HOW ON EARTH IS THIS EVEN GOING TO BE POSSIBLE? ah, wait..its going to be up to the person who ‘uploads’ the video. Nicely done Facebook, nicely done, shirking the responsibility there! (see recent articles in the media which explain that a spokesperson from Facebook says “we ask people to warn their audience”) So this in reality is not going to be happening in the way it has been portrayed. I have much more to say on the videos and how they appear and how they could appear but this is not the blog for that.

Furthermore, the warning is likely to contain the words “Are you sure you want to see this?”

Well, of course, your curiosity will be piqued by this very sentence! At this point and based on you reaching this far in my blog because you are a curios human a very intricate system in yours and most peoples brain begins. Self-talk may go something along the lines of either:

Person A: “I’m NOT watching it” : That’s the end of that and person A does not watch and continues about his/her social media business.

Person B:

“ooohhh”

“it could be awful”

“yes, it could…how exciting!”

“Do I REALLY want to see this?”

”……are you a chicken?”

“what about if its a video of.……?” Insert any number of cognitive distortions and thinking here based on your previous life experiences

“ah what the heck…I’ll just have a peek and if I don’t like it ill turn it off”

The video plays and you probably freeze, watching but not wanting to, maybe panic sets in and you try to turn it off fumbling at the keys or scrolling to hide it from view.

“OMG!!!! Why did I just watch THAT????”

In some/most cases and nearly ALL cases with young people

*******Trauma*******

Most probably, even if its the type that makes your blood boil with anger at a view/opinion you have just heard spoken, or it is an image you have witnessed or indeed actually been traumatised by as per the Psychological definition. (this would include feelings of nausea, anxiety, horror, anger/rage and the list goes on)

So Facebook, (and other social media sites) IMHO you’re late, way too late to start with this, approximately 7 years to be truthful. This should have been in place way back when you started becoming popular in 2007. Videos that depict violent images, graphic scenes, torture, child, people and animal cruelty should have been banned in the first place. Not because I disagree with the content per se and not because I disagree with free speech or condemnation of this type of violence in society. Its the psychological, emotional, social and furthermore the physical damage to the brain that has probably occurred to people who would not necessarily be exposed to these types of videos throughout the last 7 years, unless they made the active choice to go looking for it. The likelihood is younger people will find a way to access these videos and this will have an effect on the population of the younger generation of the Facebook community who see these videos. This is because children brains are not able to handle this kind of trauma. To be honest no-one’s brain is really equipped for this. We are possibly and probably de-sensitising the youth of today to graphic images, which encourages them to seek higher levels of this kind of stimulation in order to get the same feeling of excitement and fear. Perhaps even copying the videos as some research suggests. (see above for reasoning!). By allowing the videos to exist on Facebook the guarantee is young people WILL see them, regardless of the number of warnings or measures put in place now.

Inserts saying about “horses, gates and bolts”

Facebook, beheadings and other gruesome material.

Originally published 2 November, 2013

Let’s be clear about my stance on this topic. Cyber trauma needs to be spoken about to help repair ANY damage caused by witnessing and viewing traumatic material.

I have been developing workshops for professionals, parents and adults who work with young people around this topic for over 18 months as I am beginning to see the effects of this through my work as a therapist and Relationships & Sex Education tutor. (See my website)

So what am I talking about? Cyber trauma, what does this mean?

I don’t want to come across all Greenfield-ist, but.. Young people who are watching horrific, traumatic, abusive and cruel images and videos are encountering traumatic responses which are manifesting as behaviours in schools, homes and elsewhere. Now I’m not saying this is every young person, what I am saying is the number of young people and concerned adults that I am talking to in my roles is becoming alarmingly incremental.

So what I decided for this blog was to give a quick overview of trauma, the growing young person, that is the adolescent brain and what happens to that young person after witnessing such a video over the Internet. NOT always Facebook, however this is one area I wan to highlight.

Trauma has a biological effect on the growing brain, which in short affects learning, brain development, empathy, peer and ‘other’ people relationships, behaviour patterns which could be misdiagnosed, memory problems, communication problems, thinking processes and (possibly, but more probable) desensitisation just to name a few.

In short young people are carrying the images as a biological response, which is unconscious so will be ‘out of the persons awareness’. This is showing up as ‘bad’ behaviour which can include self harm, self injurious behaviour, attention deficits, suicidal thoughts and actions, aggression and even possibly reenactments of the images or videos to others.

Just to add to this the young people are under peer pressure, social norms and cyber bullying if they do/don’t watch and share these videos. There is an expectation to be able to handle this level of ‘horror’ in whatever format it appears in. It’s talked about in and out of school and is the new gossip. If children live in low SES households (Socio Economic Status), or have parents who are sensible and try to protect their children through e-safety at home they are not protected from this ever increasing trend as mobile technology allows for the viewing on someone else’s device. Without parental consent or knowledge 🙁

The videos themselves cover a large area of trauma, ranging from horrific murders, assaults, child abuse, sexual and physical, this includes videos of young people abused by peers and then used for blackmail purposes, adult abuse (similar?) animal cruelty, surgeries, accidents and injuries and protestors for the rights of any of these topics using the videos to ‘get their point over’.

Now this is interesting as a phenomenon in itself as to why there is a sudden increase in these types of videos and who actually has an interest in this world? However as adults we have a choice to go looking for this type of information, if we do it’s at our own discretion and peril and we can click onto some websites that freely hold some of these images. I DO NOT KNOW OF, NOR WISH TO CONDONE SEXUAL ABUSE SITES!!! although p*rnography, especially BDSM may look traumatic to young people witnessing it for the first time!

Young people are not getting this choice. It’s happening by accident, through peer pressure, videos are marked to look like something else, there’s an expectation to comment and like the videos with “ha LOL, funny vid!!”, people are tagged, it shows up in someone else’s news feeds and most importantly young people (everyone to be fair) is CURIOUS! It’s non intentional mostly, and this is why trauma has the biggest effect. There was no psychological preparation. Even so watching someone have their head cut off would make me nauseous even if I was prepared for the image.

I have an opposite argument to weigh up the costs of trauma, and to argue for and against who, how and where this is having an effect but lately I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about this area not being acknowledged by large media attention.

I want to discuss this in more details in social services, schools, youth clubs, with parents and so on, but for now I will present at the Trauma Conference and see where I go from there. Maybe no one wants to listen. Ostrich syndrome perhaps?