Overexposure to Traumatic Images: How Visual Trauma Affects People

Read this article about a mom who believes the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why was a factor in her daughter’s decision to commit suicide.

Because our culture is saturated with these images, visually induced mental trauma is an all-too-familiar feature of modern life. But it’s not a simple phenomenon, nor is it always easy to detect. Its effects are subtle and elusive. They vary from person to person. That’s because visual trauma exists largely in the eye of the beholder, literally. To complicate matters further, how visual trauma affects people depends on four different criteria of measurement:

  1. Severity. The greater the intensity and shock of the disturbing image, the harder it will be for a person’s brain to regain equilibrium after exposure to it.
  2. Frequency. The more often a person is exposed to particular images, the deeper it’s impressed upon the mind. But even one exposure to an intense image may cause trauma. An extremely intense visual experience (a scene from a hard-core pornographic video) may become deeply imbedded in the viewer’s brain after a single exposure, while a less intense experience (a violent scene in a war movie or video game) may need to be repeated over and over before it produces a traumatic effect.
  3. Obvious versus not obvious. Sometimes the viewer knows immediately that he has been thrown off balance by what he’s seen, especially if it’s an intense image. But the wounding effects of a less severe visual image may not be felt until a person has been subjected to its influence many times.
  4. Cumulative impact. These factors add up over time, eventually producing a damaged and unstable state of mind. At that point, a person will need outside help to return to a condition of healthy psychological stability.

How the Brain Responds to Traumatic Images

Visual input feels more real and immediate to the brain than a written or verbalized description of a scene or event. As a result, the central nervous system tends to respond to disturbing images as it might respond to a true-life threat. When confronted with real danger, our brains slip into the fight, flight, or freeze mode. The limbic system, which works much faster than the analytical prefrontal cortex portion of our brain, kicks into gear. Rational thought recedes into the background. Everything becomes part of a mindless reactive pattern.

Something similar happens when our brains are exposed to a disturbing or shocking visual image. The situation becomes even more serious when those images are sexual in nature. Sexual images stimulate the release of powerful hormones into the nervous system:

  • Adrenaline produces excitement.
  • Dopamine creates a sense of intense pleasure.
  • Oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone, introduces feelings of dependence upon and connection with the source of the experience.

The result of this hormone release can be a type of addiction every bit as real as that connected with substance abuse.

In adolescents, these factors combine to put the young viewer of pornography into a kind of double bind. On the one hand, the pictures he’s viewing are so captivating and alluring that he can’t turn away. On the other hand, they can be so disturbing and guilt-producing that he’s thrown into a state of severe mental conflict.

The blow to this child’s or teenager’s conscious mind is so severe that he’s unable to absorb the shock. If he isn’t released from this bind within a reasonable amount of time, something will snap. Unresolved internal tension will compel him to act out in some way or drive him into anxiety, depression, or despair.

Effects of Early Exposure to Sexually Explicit Material[1]

  • Early sex. According to a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, teens who are exposed to more sexual content in movies start having sex at a younger age and are more likely to have casual, unprotected sex.[2]
  • High-risk sex. The earlier a child is exposed to sexual content in media and begins having sex, the likelier she is to engage in high-risk sexual practices, including unprotected sex, frequent intercourse, and sexual behavior accompanied by drug or alcohol use.
  • Sex, love, and relationship addictions. Research shows that early exposure to pornography is a risk factor for sex addictions and other intimacy disorders. In one study of 932 sex addicts, 90 percent of men and 77 percent of women reported that porn was a factor in their addiction.
  • Sexual violence. Studies show that early exposure to sexually explicit material (by age fourteen) may increase the risk of a child becoming the victim of sexual violence or acting out sexually against another person.

Distortion of Reality

So many images we see these days are edited or modified by electronic technology that it’s hard to know if what we’re looking at is actually real or not. Kids see the world through the lens of media rather than vice versa. As a result, they’re beginning to accept the idea that nothing is really real. That includes things like violent crime and suicide.

And that’s not all. There are other ways in which the incessant onslaught of digital media alters our sense of what real life is all about. The immediacy of disturbing visual images creates the impression that frightening events are always happening just outside the door. This becomes a special problem for children between the ages of two and seven, since at this stage, they tend to feel personally responsible for everything that happens around them. A constant barrage of negative news can be particularly unnerving for kids this age.

The Harmful Impact of Negative News

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, many of us nowadays live with a constant feeling that the world is crashing down around us. This isn’t precisely the case, of course. In fact, some studies have suggested that the world has seen an overall decrease in violence over the past few decades. In reality, our feelings of gloom and doom are largely the result of highly selective reporting. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make a great deal of difference in the world of digital media. In that world, perception becomes reality—even though it’s a false reality. And this false sense of reality is affecting the human mind for the worse in several ways. A Science article, “What Constant Exposure to Negative News Is Doing to Our Mental Health,” notes these effects:[3]

  • According to British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, negative news can significantly change a person’s mood. It creates a state of mind that allows a person to see his own personal worries as more threatening and severe. This makes worry more difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.
  • Davey, who specializes in the psychological effects of media violence, says that negative news can have a big effect on the way we interpret and interact with the world around us. Reports of disturbing events that make us anxious or sad may also make it easier for us to see ambiguous or neutral events as negative and threatening.
  • Some research has even suggested that viewing traumatic images in the media can cause PTSD-like symptoms in certain individuals—generally those who are already prone to the condition. Researchers found that the more time people spent watching television, the more severe their symptoms were.
  • Exposure to graphic violence can lead either to oversensitivity or desensitization. People who are oversensitive are more sensitive to emotional distress. People who are desensitized become numbed by the exposure and show less of an emotional response to disturbing stimuli. These effects have been observed in those who have been repeatedly exposed to violent video games.
  1. Adapted from Carolyn C. Ross, “Overexposed and Under-Prepared: The Effects of Early Exposure to Sexual Content,” Psychology Today, August 13, 2012.
  2. Ross E. O’Hara, Frederick X. Gibbons, et al., “Greater Exposure to Sexual Content in Popular Movies Predicts Earlier Sexual Debut and Increased Sexual Risk Taking,” Psychological Science, July 18, 2012, doi: 10.1177/0956797611435529.
  3. Carolyn Gregoire, “Science: What Constant Exposure To Negative News Is Doing To Our Mental Health,” Huffpost, February 19, 2015, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/19/violent-media-anxiety_n_6671732.html.

Lesson Complete!