The role of social media and sexual trauma cannot be ignored in conversations about ‘mental illness’

Considering that psychology has a history of failing to address sexual trauma, how can it respond to the rising tide of sexual traumatization occurring online?

Image: Flickr/Christiaan Colen

All over the world, mental illness is robbing millions of their happiness, connectedness, and, increasingly, their lives. Suicide and mental health are issues that can no longer be ignored. In Australia, suicide is now the leading cause of unnatural deaths. Girls and women, who historically make up a far smaller portion of suicide victims, are now dying in numbers almost on par with boys.

Today, in the US, the suicide rates of girls aged 10-14 are rising at a faster pace than those of boys. Suicide rates have reached an all time high since WWII. Depression has more than doubled for teens. That the first generation to be raised with smartphones are suffering the most is no coincidence. Studies increasingly show that the way young people consume social media, 24/7, is not only leading them to feel less socially connected, but also leading them to decreased mental wellness. In fact, far from helping their mental health, social media has been found to cause trauma for young people due to the prevalence of sexual objectification, sexual harassment, and online bullying.

The current online world creates an inherently traumatizing developmental environment for young people, due both to its glamorization of sexual objectification, as well as the way users are inundated by online pornography. Reducing exposure to traumatizing material is difficult due to its omnipresent nature, and almost impossible in the context of peer-to-peer networks like Snapchat and Instagram. Even Instagram accounts that claim to be focused on health, wellness, fashion, music, or travel are pornified.

It’s clear that current interventions to improve mental health are not adequately addressing the underlying causes of mental illness and suicidality for young people today. In fact, psychological science as a whole has a long history of failing to address the insidious and widespread impacts of trauma, particularly sexual trauma — which so often underlies suicidality and mental illness.

Consider that not too long ago, psychiatric authorities deemed childhood sexual abuse a positive experience. To quote the 1974 edition of the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, “Incestuous activity diminishes the subject’s chance of psychosis and allows for a better adjustment to the outside world.” While incest was deemed acceptable, homosexuality was a diagnosable mental disorder, and women could be considered mentally ill if they “disobeyed” their husbands.

The denial of traumatic sexual experience and its lifelong impact heralds from a much earlier era. In 1896, Sigmund Freud, one of psychology’s best known forefathers, first presented on the sexual abuse of girls, arguing that it was both widespread and the most significant cause of later trauma (then termed hysteria) in women. However, because his paper implied that many men of “good reputation” were in fact perpetrators of abuse, he received significant backlash. On this basis, Freud not only recanted his paper, but replaced it with the theory of the “Oedipus complex” — that is, the notion that girls invent sexual fantasies about their fathers. Freud’s theory hallmarked the beginning of a theme that continues to influence the collective consciousness today: victim-blaming and the discrediting of women’s and children’s reports of abuse.

Alongside victim-blaming and denial of child abuse, childhood neglect was also encouraged in earlier eras. Indeed, well into the 1960s, British and American hospital policies stated parents only need to visit their children “one hour each week” during their children’s in-patient treatment. According to British and American psychiatric authorities, emotions were a problem — something to be controlled, suppressed, and not “indulged” in infants. Children were deemed “coddled” or codependent if their emotional needs were attended to by their caregivers. An “antiseptic rational distance” was the correct way to rear a child. In 1951, British psychologist John Bowlby presented on the emotional needs of in-patient children to the Royal Society of Medicine in London, arguing that children require attentive emotional care while in hospital. Not only was Bowlby’s presentation dismissed, but his work nearly banned by the Academy.

Given that the roots of modern psychology are embedded in theory that not only denies but encourages trauma, how can it adequately respond to the impacts of that trauma?

Some psychologists are paving the way for a more integrated and holistic understanding of trauma and its impact on health and wellbeing. As argued by Bessel van der Kolk, trauma is stored in the body, not the mind alone. A feeling of safety and connection to others is the most critical precursor to healing. The feelings of safety and connectedness required for healing are difficult, albeit impossible, to imbibe in our modern, hypersexualized, online, 24/7, click-bait culture. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, van der Kolk writes:

“For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety. No doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love: These are complex and hard-earned capacities.”

The challenge of integrated healing within today’s modern “connected” world is that many of us live emotionally hobbled and disconnected from both self and others. This is not because of any personal shortcoming of our own, but due to the shortcomings of a society that is historically structured toward being emotionally sterile. Our attempts at replicating interpersonal connection via technology have only resulted in further emotional dislocation. The hope that online technology could revolutionize interpersonal connection has largely failed those most in need, and instead resulted in girls and women being exposed to further trauma through sexual objectification and harassment that makes them unsafe in both the online and offline worlds.

The contributions of world-changing psychologists and researchers like John Bowlby and Judith Herman have paved the way for psychology to begin to address trauma and childhood attachment; however, we are still in our infancy when it comes to understanding the complexity of trauma and its ongoing impacts. We cannot continue to treat mental illness as merely individualized concerns that are disconnected from broader society. For those growing up in an inherently traumatizing online environment, psychological science must re-envisage the ways to support and protect young people in their mental wellness.

Laura McNally is a registered psychologist, author, PhD and professional shit-stirrer. Her commentary has been featured in The ABC, The Guardian, The Australian, The Ethics Centre, and more.

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