Trauma dumping 101: What is is, and why it hurts

Sharing trauma without permission, in an inappropriate place and time, to someone who may not have the capacity to process it. That’s trauma dumping.

It’s become so commonplace on social media, our kids may have come to accept it as normal. It’s not. And experts are increasingly concerned about the fallout for their mental health.  

Social media favours extremes - whether of the beauty or the terror, the #blessed or their opposite number.  On the one hand, it can be a stage for showcasing impeccably curated and filtered lives. But on the other, it can serve as a dumping ground for sadness, abuse and dysfunction.

The corrosive impact of “social comparison” on wellbeing has received a ton of publicity lately - and rightly so.  When we feel our own lives don’t measure up to the glamorous images we see online, it has a measurable effect on our self-esteem - particularly for teens and tweens.

But the darker side of the social media funhouse mirror is problematic, too, say experts. 

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Posting or messaging about a personal tragedy - whether a death in the family, a sexual assault, or historic childhood abuse - isn’t an issue in itself, says clinical psychologist Carla Manly. But venting can cross the line when the sharing happens in an “unsolicited, unprepared way” - on a social media feed, for example. 

"A normal part of the ecosystem"

And that’s exactly where researchers find trauma dumping is happening more and more frequently -  in DMs, comment sections and even videos - so much so, that the practice has become “a normal part of the ecosystem,” according to a report by this week. But what, exactly, does “normal” mean in this context?

"When a generation is raised with access to digital content, the lines between online and real-world identity are blurred,” says trauma therapist Shannon Thomas. “No longer is there an internal warning system indicating the person is over-sharing.”

The “dump” may or may not be therapeutic for the person who lets it all hang out. (Some experts maintain it may actually serve to aggravate negative feelings.) But those on the receiving end, especially those who are highly sensitive and empathic, can experience “secondary trauma” - a kind of emotional contagion that leaves them feeling drained, anxious and helpless. 

Trauma contagion

“For someone who isn’t psychologically stable, absorbing somebody else’s trauma is generally what happens,” Manly explains. It’s an observation with particular relevance for teens - who almost by definition lack the emotional stability associated with adult development.

"When a generation is raised with access to digital content, the lines between online and real-world identity are blurred,” says trauma therapist Shannon Thomas. “No longer is there an internal warning system indicating the person is over-sharing.”

TikTok is currently the epicentre of online trauma dumping. Currently, tags related to the practice have over 20 million views, signalling deeply personal stories of abuse, assault and mental health breakdowns.  In perhaps the most disturbing development of all, viewers are responding by cheering and clapping. In other cases, TikTokers are lip-synching stories of childhood trauma to popular songs.

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A recent investigation by The Wall Street Journal showed TikTok’s algorithm shaping users “For You” page toward more extreme, less mainstream, content. The bot accounts it created fell into a rabbit hole of trauma-related posts, featuring depression, suicide and eating disorders.  


With Family Zone, you can block or limit TikTok  - and many other risky apps - with a single click.

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, depression, anxiety, oversharing, trauma dumping

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