Under the Hood

Can Social Media Cause PTSD? Former Facebook Moderator Sues For Mental Trauma

Facebook is being sued by a former content moderator who states that her work induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by exposing her to distressing online videos and images.

Selena Scola, who worked for the social media company from June 2017 to March 2018, filed the complaint in California state court in San Mateo County on Sept. 21.

The job of a content moderator is to review all the information being uploaded to a website and remove the ones that violate the terms of use. Given the vast popularity of a platform like Facebook, it is unsurprising that millions of videos, images, and live-streamed broadcast are being uploaded on a daily basis.

The document mentions disturbing content involving child sexual abuse, rape, torture, bestiality, beheadings, suicides, and murder. As a result of her constant exposure to such content, Scola alleges she developed "debilitating PTSD" which she suffers from till date.

PTSD is characterized by symptoms like distressing memories, flashbacks or recurrent dreams about the source of their trauma, and dissociative reactions when faced with triggers that may remind them of the traumatic event. In the complaint, Scola reveals that she is triggered by certain objects and places — when she touches a computer mouse, walks into a cold building, hears loud noises, and more. 

In a 2015 study, British researchers explored the phenomenon of PTSD in "vicarious" form i.e. when a person develops PTSD-like symptoms from viewing a traumatic situation rather than directly experiencing it.

While this is largely a risk associated with job roles such as content moderators and journalists, living in the digital age means the general public is likely to stumble across disturbing content as well.

"Social media has enabled violent stories and graphic images to be watched by the public in unedited horrific detail. Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those directly experiencing them may impact on our daily lives," Dr. Pam Ramsden from the University of Bradford stated in 2015.

"With increased access to social media and the internet via tablets and smartphones, we need to ensure that people are aware of the risks of viewing these images and that appropriate support is available for those who need it," Ramsden added.

In her suit, Scola is asking Facebook to set up a medical monitoring fund to treat patients with PTSD. Bertie Thompson, director of corporate communication at Facebook, has confirmed they are reviewing the claim. 

Though the complaint accuses Facebook of not providing adequate care to ensure the safety of the moderators' mental health, Thompson noted that a variety of wellness resources were available for workers such as onsite counseling and relaxation areas at larger facilities.