Study shows horrifying effect of online violence on teenagers

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More than half of teenagers – 55 percent – had watched real-life acts of violence on social media in the last year, new research has revealed. A study of more than 2,000 13 to 17-year-olds, conducted by the charity Youth Endowment Fund (YEF) backed by the Home Office, found this was even higher among those who had witnessed or been victims of violence. Experts have now shared the detrimental effects of seeing this content can have on impressionable children and teenagers with Express.co.uk. 

According to the YEF study – titled Children, violence and vulnerability – the most common type of violence seen by those surveyed was fighting. 

One-third said they had seen threats of physical assault online, and a small yet alarming 13 percent said they had watched sexual assaults.  

Not only this but in the last 12 months, 20 percent of those asked said they had seen children being part of a gang or promoting gang membership, with nearly a quarter having seen other teenagers and children carrying or encouraging weapons on social media. 

Sam Jahara, a UK Council for Psychotherapy registered psychotherapist, said the damage of being exposed to this content was multifaceted. Not only can it make the teenager or child more aggressive and have less empathy, but it can also lead to a heightened risk of anxiety and sleep disorders with teenagers becoming more isolated overall. 

A combination of an aggressive attitude and a more fearful perspective of the world can come from watching the content, which can then lead to a “skewed perspective” that the world is a dangerous place, thus potentially leading to teenagers carrying weapons or acting more aggressively than they otherwise would, she explained.

Ms Jahara, who is based in East Sussex, told Express.co.uk: “When teens become desensitised to violence, they have effectively become desensitised to their own emotions and those of others around them. Another word for this ‘desensitisation’ is ‘dissociation’ which is a psychological process that protects our psyches from overwhelm – the emotional system essentially ‘shuts down’ and we feel very little. 

“Dissociation is common in victims of trauma and is often to be found in their narrative where they describe feeling ‘numb’ or recount a painful event without any emotional expression. 

“There are studies showing that teens who come from families or homes where they do not automatically feel safe and loved (for whatever reason) are both more drawn to this type of content – as it reinforces the perception they already have of a hostile world – and are more susceptible to the psychological, emotional and social effects – as they do not have the experience of a ‘safe’ home to counteract the violence they are viewing. It, therefore, becomes a toxic feedback loop.”

Valerie Ellis, a psychotherapist turned artist whose work explores psychological themes, stressed that desensitisation is not the sole issue, as even brief exposure to this harmful content can have a long-lasting impact on how someone processes the world around them.

Speaking to Express.co.uk, she said: “What do young men learn from seeing images of sexual violence (which are almost exclusively male violence perpetrated against women)? That woman can be a target, that they are ’supposed’ to be violent (which aligns with other stereotypes about men), that sex and violence are linked? What do young women learn? That they are legitimate targets, that men are capable of this, that sex and violence are linked?

“Especially in childhood (before the early twenties when we become more critical about the information we receive), we tend to generalise what we learn… This generalisation helps us apply lessons across a category, so we become informed quickly. That’s why only a few exposures to sexual violence are required for broad ideas to be embedded – often for life. It’s obvious this is bad news for girls and women, but we now know that this sort of dysfunctional male stereotype is bad for the mental health of men too who crave connection, affection, and safety too.”

While understanding the long-term effects of violent content on teenagers is still in its infancy, Ms Jahara explained that data collection dating back to the Eighties has started to reveal the psychological, emotional, and social impact of youngsters playing violent video and online games. 

She added: “Teenagers who engage with violent content are at higher risk of experiencing anxiety and sleep disorders and the content can over time impact their experience of the world. They begin to ‘expect’ the world to be a dangerous place and are more likely to be in a reactive or defensive state of mind (which combined with higher levels of aggression is an anti-social mix).”

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Viewing this content through social media can further exacerbate the problem, Ms Jahara explained, as it is shared by their “social circle”, and it can appear to confirm or reinforce the idea that the world is a dangerous place. 

According to a survey conducted by Statistica, more than nine in ten children aged between 12 and 15 used social media with 89 percent having their own social media profile. 

Teens who are constantly exposed to violence may not only be at risk of mental, social, and sleep problems, but their perception of reality could be skewed.

Worryingly, in the long term, Ms Jahara said that teenagers could begin to “crave” violent content to feel anything as ordinary life can seem dull or boring in comparison. 

She added: “In the same way we would seek to protect a child or teenager from the ravages of war and are able to understand the psycho-social impacts that PTSD can have, particularly on a developing mind, we should be protecting our young from violent content.”

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