After the attacks, an emotional contagion via social networks

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… In acts of terrorism, they are now essential, for better or for worse. After London, Berlin, Nice, or Brussels, the Manchester massacre strongly involved social networks. Thus, less than 24 hours after the tragedy, the hashtag #PrayForManchester had already been used more than 60.000 times on Twitter. But, what about this overconsumption of new media?The Conversation

Dn the days and weeks following the attacks of September 11, 2001, televisions around the world relayed images of the Twin Towers struck by airliners, as well as those of the many victims of these mass attacks. This flood of images then posed in a meaningful way the question of the psychotrauma that they could induce. Indeed, from the point of view of psychopathology, the first element which makes it possible to characterize a psychotrauma is constituted by the confrontation, direct or indirect, with an event which involves the life, or the physical integrity, of the person or of a close person. It is this event that will eventually become the trauma, the memory of which is at the heart of all the symptoms of psychotraumatic pathology.

The traumatic nature of the images, but also of the relationship with the victims, is widely debated. Even if it is considered that proximity to the victim is an important risk factor, there is to date no clearly defined criterion for this proximity. Similarly, until 2013, that is to say until the publication of the new version of the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatry Association (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5e edition, DSM 5), there was no indication of what an indirect encounter with a potentially traumatic event might be.

Individuals sometimes very far from the scene of the attacks may have developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress after seeing (often very repeatedly) the images of September 11. An increase in these symptoms has even been observed even among the elderly in the Netherlands. Despite these arguments, the group of experts behind the revision of the DSM criteria considered that the data collected was not sufficiently convincing for the images to constitute in themselves a determinant of the state of post-stress. traumatic (with the exception of potentially traumatic images seen by police officers, surveillance agents, etc. in the course of their professional activity).

Since 2001, media consumption has changed significantly, especially among the youngest. The recent attacks in Europe (March 11, 2004 in a train in Madrid, July 7, 2005 in the London Underground, July 22, 2011 in Oslo and on the island of Utoya, then again on July 14, 2016 on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and on May 22, 2017 in Manchester) now raise the question of research and information sharing on the Internet. It seems already proven that social networks promote the development of anxiety in crisis situations, due to a process of emotional contagion, that is to say a transfer to others. individuals of their own emotional state. This process could be linked to the way in which individuals regulate their emotions. This way of adapting is indeed associated with social influences, those at the heart of social networks.

Survey of 451 young adults

A month after the attacks of November 13, 2015 in Paris and Saint-Denis, we interviewed a sample of 451 young adults on the time they had spent searching for information on the media, both traditional (television, radio , newspapers) and digital (websites, social networks), on the strategies used to cope with the emotions they feel and on the possible symptoms they may be suffering from. They also had to indicate their physical and relational proximity to the attacks and their victims, as well as the fact that they may have already been confronted with a potentially traumatic event during their childhood.

The results obtained clearly point in the direction of an emotional contagion among the biggest consumers of social networks in the month following the attacks. The more time the individuals who responded to our survey spent on these networks, the more they manifested a significant level of anxiety and depression (but not post-traumatic stress), when at the same time they used strategies. of so-called dysfunctional emotional regulation (for example, keeping one's feelings buried, or even verbally unloading on others). On the other hand, this relationship did not appear at all for the time spent watching information on the attacks on television, listening to the radio, consulting Internet sites or the printed press.

The results of our study are in more than one way enlightening to understand the consequences of the dissemination of information about mass attacks. As appears to be the case for television images, the information conveyed by social networks does not seem to constitute in itself a trauma, but rather a stressor which acts on the mood of young adults who have difficulty regulating. their emotions. However, the nature of the information shared and the method of sharing remain to be widely explored.

Undoubtedly, beyond the deleterious effects that we have observed, social networks can also constitute extremely effective tools for disseminating warning or solidarity messages and therefore for protecting the greatest number in crisis situations. The fact remains that it is a question of remaining vigilant to the different ways in which these new tools are used in crisis situations and in particular following mass attacks.

Emmanuel Monfort, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Grenoble Alpes University and Mohammad H. Afzali, Post-doctoral researcher, Department of Psychiatry, University of Montreal

La original version of this article was posted on The Conversation.

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