The Psychological Effects Of Witnessing Cruelty To Animals On Social Media
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The Psychological Effects Of Witnessing Cruelty To Animals On Social Media

The Psychological Effects Of Witnessing Cruelty To Animals On Social Media. Hello everyone, I hope you are well. In today’s post, I will be sharing a guest post from Dustin Kieschnick and Katie Lawlor from the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, exploring the psychological effects of witnessing cruelty to animals on Social Media. Social Media seems to be full of animals, and often, those depictions are about cruelty. We are horrified when we see a post about a fox ripped apart by hounds or someone who has dumped a bag of kittens in a river or beaten their dog. And for those people who support or work in the sector of animal welfare, it can feel as though all you ever see are these traumatic images.

So, what impact does this have on our mental health?

The Psychological Effects Of Witnessing Cruelty To Animals On Social Media

For many of us, our lives are intimately intertwined with the presence of animals. We may be their guardians, feel compelled to protect wildlife, work in animal welfare and rescue, or serve in the veterinary medicine field.

When we are confronted with a threat to the life of an animal or learn of cruelty toward them, we may experience an immediate and overwhelming sense of trauma. Trauma is a term that is commonly used in today’s society, but it is a complex psychological term that can have severe repercussions on those who have endured it.

What Makes Something Traumatic?

The Psychiatric Diagnostic Manual (DSM) describes trauma as exposure to an event that is sustained as physically and/or emotionally harmful and that has potential lasting adverse effects on our lives. Trauma can occur through experiencing something directly, witnessing something happen to someone close to us, or being the result of repeated exposure to the distressing details of an event or series of events. Many clinicians are beginning to make the case that this criterion in the DSM should include harm to companions and wild animals.

Exposure to trauma can take several forms, including through photo or video depictions. In particular, social media platforms often provide less-filtered, more raw depictions of events accompanied by graphic imagery. While we may be witnessing at a distance via our electronic devices, perhaps from the comfort of our homes, we are nonetheless exposed to traumatic content. It is from this first viewing that we can begin to envision ourselves in these horrendous scenarios, and it begins to impact us both mentally and emotionally.

The Complexity Of Trauma

There’s an additional layer of complexity when it comes to trauma exposure. While it doesn’t necessarily hold that if we see a graphic image, we are automatically traumatised, for those of us who care about animals, the inhumanity becomes personal.

The impact trauma can have on us is influenced by our histories of trauma, our ethics and values, and our sense of connectedness to the affected. As we witness an animal’s suffering, perhaps we put ourselves in their situation. Perhaps we feel safe in their company and want to protect them. Perhaps we feel most at peace in nature and believe peace should extend to them, especially in their natural habitat. Or perhaps we have trained extensively in a related profession and feel painfully inadequate when we can’t use our talents and resources to save and heal them.

What makes trauma so challenging is that the cognitive processes in our brains that enable us to take action are often not straightforward. Instead, we may experience numerous detrimental psychological effects that can act as blocks in our attempts to help.

Guilt

When a traumatic event occurs, we humans tend to blame ourselves. We believe that we should have been able to stop the event from happening or done more to influence the outcome. We have trouble accepting that it happened. and/or we try to forget it happened. These thoughts are often more intense and damaging if pain and suffering are experienced or if loss of life occurs.

Over time, these thoughts can develop into a pattern, and we begin to view ourselves, others, and the world through a negative, destructive, dangerous lens. We may begin to feel hopeless, incapable, or depressed and that our small efforts or donations are meaningless, given the global devastation and immense magnitude of the problem.

Why Do We Do This To Ourselves?

It is not a conscious choice: it is our brain’s way of creating order and finding reason amidst the chaos of “protecting” us from the horrific abuse and neglect these animals are facing. Our brains are hardwired to avoid pain; if we adopt a protective rationale, if we don’t get involved, if we don’t make ourselves vulnerable if we don’t entertain the overwhelming scope of the problem, then we can stay in control of our lives and spare ourselves from anguish.

To challenge our feelings of guilt, people may jump into action mode. The first step is often to utilise social media, as platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are easily accessible to content creators and viewers. Animal welfare organisations may engage social media followers in their campaigns, which frequently depict and document animal brutality to raise awareness, often in the context of vital fundraising, legal purposes, or news coverage. Some of us may even elect to receive text alerts on our phones, essentially giving these organisations intimate access to our lives at all times.

The Psychological Effects Of Witnessing Cruelty To Animals On Social Media

The Role Our Emotions Play

While we begin to feel meaning and fulfilment again through our reinstated commitment, we may also begin to experience a myriad of emotions related to the traumatic events we are once again exposed to. It can be helpful to know the terminology psychologists use to explain the two types of emotions you might be feeling:

The first are referred to as natural emotions. These are the feelings universally experienced by humans: sadness, loneliness, isolation, fear, hopelessness, anger, confusion, disbelief, etc. While reflection on the traumatic event will always evoke natural emotions to some extent, they should become more bearable with time.

The second type of emotion we may experience following a traumatic event is manufactured emotions. These feelings are derived from our interpretation of the event. For example, if we believe that we should have been able to save the animal or didn’t do enough to protect them, we will most likely feel shame, worthlessness, and several other damaging feelings.

Our Mental Health In A Digital Age

If this digital landscape wasn’t tricky enough to navigate, there is emergent research indicating what is termed a dose-response relationship in trauma. This means that the more you are exposed to traumatic content, the more at risk you are of being impacted. While some individuals can recover and heal from exposure on their own without any treatment interventions, others may experience acute and persistent aspects of mental health conditions such as compassion fatigue, burnout, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

For this community, vicarious traumatisation can also occur. This is when trauma symptoms that arise from repeated exposure to traumatic media content can lead to disheartening changes in one’s worldview, ability to regulate emotionally, questioning of self-identity, and several other damaging symptoms.

Balancing Reality With Hope

The truth within the animal welfare community is that exposure to traumatic content via the media, especially on social platforms, is a reality. Most likely, this occurs daily (hourly), depending on who you follow and what you do. At the same time, it creates a problem when thinking about raising awareness. There is a risk of too little exposure not engendering the public reaction needed to prompt change, with too much becoming emotionally inundating or flooding our capacity to respond effectively. The objective is to become aware of the concerning effects of exposure and to be informed about how and what content is disseminated.

So, how should we proceed, understanding there are always more animals to be saved?

In 2020, we piloted a study with a group of US-based veterinarians, a profession often on the frontline of traumatic cases. The study examined the effects of virtual peer support groups (held via Zoom), utilising a comprehensive range of evidence-based measures to determine what aided them (from a psychological perspective) in this role.

While we discovered several beneficial insights, what proved most valuable to these vets was a consistent, accessible, and supportive community. In this space, their thoughts and feelings were normalised and validated by those who “got it” and whom they trusted, given their shared encounters and backgrounds. Vets could also encourage fellow participants to ask for help and discover what others have done in similar situations. Relatedly, they reported that communicating their concerns aided them in making sense of what they were going through and reminded them they were never alone. Most of all, these sessions created a setting for building camaraderie and empathy while removing stigma and barriers to care.

Conclusion

While social media can connect us to the causes we care about, we need to be aware of the psychological components of involvement in animal welfare. The impact of trauma exposure is undeniably real. However, healing and unburdening can be achieved with a community of compassionate and dedicated individuals committed to helping others and the animals they care about.

I hope you enjoyed that.

Talk soon.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Dustin Kieschnick and Katie Lawlor presented an earlier version of this paper at the Annual Oxford Animal Ethics Summer School on Animals and the Media: Communicating Ethical Perspectives on Animals held at Merton College, University of Oxford, August 7-10, 2023: Animals and Media – Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics (oxfordanimalethics.com). The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics is an independent centre pioneering ethical perspectives on animals through academic research, teaching, and publication. The Centre comprises more than 100 academic Fellows worldwide.

Web: www.oxfordanimalethics.com/home
Instagram: @oxfordanimalethics
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@oxfordanimalethics

Working with Strong women, I help empower women not to give up on their goals and find true happiness within themselves. #lifestyle #womenempowerment #selfcare

7 Comments

  • Archana Singh

    I am against cruelty to animals, and witnessing it happen on social media is very disturbing, too. Sometimes, I wish I had not seen that particular clip. It disturbs me for a long time. Reading this article taught me a lot about the psychological effects of witnessing cruelty to animals. I really hope we can be more humane and kind to animals.

  • Richard Lowe

    The psychological effects of seeing animal cruelty on social media are, as you point out, profound. This is yet another reason to cut down on social media in life. We really don’t need it.

  • Kelly Bolen

    Thank you for sharing this. I thought it was just me. I always get choked up when I see an animal being abused or was abused on social media. It breaks my heart and then I want to track down the jerk who did it and punch them in the face. I think I might have anger issues when it comes to seeing abused animals…..people can be so cruel. And animals are so giving of themselves, it sucks to see them in pain and suffering.

  • LisaLisa

    Such a great informative post! It is very horrifying to see the cruelty of animals on social media. I really wish people would stop traumatizing animals, WOW, how unhuman.

  • Beth

    I have a friend who’s worked in animal rescue for decades, and it has taken a severe toll on her. Of course, she’s in the trenches, but I know when I see animal abuse online as part of an anti-cruelty campaign or on the news as a story of what some horrible person has done, it hits me so hard. It really does stay with me.

  • Kimberley Asante

    Your exploration of the psychological effects of witnessing cruelty to animals on social media sheds light on an important yet often overlooked aspect of online behavior. It’s commendable how you delve into the emotional impact that such content can have on individuals, highlighting the need for empathy and responsible sharing. By raising awareness about this issue, you’re contributing to a more compassionate and mindful online community. Keep up the insightful work!

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