After the Webinar: Trauma and Our Digital Selves. Q&A with Callie Stewart

Webinar presenter Callie Stewart answered a number of your questions after her presentation, Trauma and Our Digital Selves.   Here are just a few of her responses.


Audience Question: If we wanted to learn more about how social media affects our victims, I know you’ve given us some great high-level resources there on your handout, are there any specific resources, or documents, or research that you’ve seen regarding media or social media, and their impact on victims, and the things that we should take into consideration? 

Callie Stewart: I do think research is growing right now in the field. First of all, I’ll say the NOVA will have some resources coming out, you can reach out to me. But I know RAINN has some wonderful resources about working with victims of crime and engaging with social media and like our digital selves. That is really wonderful. And then, also, just, I put some news articles that are in that handout. And there are a lot of people who are paying more attention to this now. So, there’s unfortunately not like a clearinghouse. I’d be more than happy to provide more content information. If you’re looking for a deeper dive, I can share some more resources with you all.


Audience Question: What is the difference again, between vicarious trauma and secondary trauma? Are those synonyms or are they different? 

Callie Stewart: Yes, so, I am more than happy to even go back to the slide here. So, vicarious trauma essentially is the repeated exposure of indirect trauma. So, this is a hard concept. I apologize everyone. I don’t know why I thought I had five minutes less than I did. So, I could have slowed this down a bit. So essentially, secondary trauma can be more sudden. And that, an example of that might resonate with some people, is some folks actually experienced real PTSD from watching news coverage of the September 11th attacks, right? So, watching that and they experienced PTSD from that, and that would be secondary trauma and there will be sudden, it is just witnessing it, right? They might not know someone who was there. It was just the fact that they watched it in that it triggered a traumatic response to them. That would be secondary trauma. Whereas vicarious trauma is more what we have to be concerned about in the helping profession. Hearing these stories, again and again, and again, being exposed to a lot of that secondary trauma. Until it kind of wears us down to vicarious trauma, this general feeling of fear and anxiety associated with the constant exposure. So that’s the best way to look at it is that secondary can be indirect, can be a little bit more sudden, and vicarious is consistent exposure.


Audience Question: So then, in terms of vicarious trauma, do the stories have to be the same types of stories? So, sexual assaults, or child abuse, etc.? Does it go back to that saying you said at the very beginning of the presentation, trauma is trauma, and hearing any type of traumatic story can be, can contribute to that vicarious trauma? 

Callie Stewart: It can be any kind of traumatic story exposure. So, it doesn’t have to be the same thing. It’s just this constant exposure to traumatic stories. And thank you for bringing that, Christina. This idea that trauma is trauma and what we view and witness, if we’re constantly looking at really horrifying images, it can create vicarious trauma or these horrifying videos that we sometimes see on social media that can create vicarious trauma, and then in our field that it is just as being exposed to other people’s trauma that can create it.


Audience Question: So, what about the trauma experienced by those who find out about a death of a loved one, or a family, or close family friend via a post on social media such as Facebook? Or do you have any thoughts in regards to like the current impacts and in light of what you’re describing? 

Callie Stewart: Oh, that’s a wonderful question, thank you for raising that. I have to think it’s not exactly the same, but we would make it akin to reading in the newspaper, or receiving a call, right? It’s going to be a shock, regardless, and the traumatic impact of seeing that in, it’s not necessarily going to be different from receiving that call or reading about it in the newspaper versus social media. But I think that’s the point, right? The amount of exposure that we have and maybe how public that is to that person could be extremely traumatizing for them. It goes back to this idea that trauma is so unique to each individual. Maybe seeing that on social media for someone who feels like one of personal friends that they didn’t know, and they were close to that person, maybe. Or the fact that now the whole world is aware, and this would have been a really private thing for them. So, we have all those personal values and beliefs that get tied up into this, and then everyone’s on this platform and engages it in different ways. It has different expectations of how it should be used. So, there’s that for consideration. And then in terms of just the trauma of finding out that you’ve lost a loved one, right? That’s something that I think many of us can identify with. And the trauma of experiencing, that would just be the same as if you experience it being told by somebody face-to-face.

Host: I love the analogy you just used. I had not even thought about it. Is that it would be like opening the newspaper. So, back in our parents’ time, they might’ve opened the newspaper that morning and discovered that somebody they knew had been killed or had died, suddenly, and the shock of learning that in such a public forum. The difference being, to your point, that you know, when you’re reading the newspaper, you have that private moment where it’s just you and the newspaper and your thoughts. Whereas on Facebook, you’re seeing everybody else’s comments. Similar, but much more complex experience. Thank you for clarifying — I had never thought about that before.


Audience Question: Do you believe some individuals are more perhaps empathic or empathetic than others regarding these complex emotions survivors experience? And does that mean that we need to be just that much more careful? 

Callie Stewart: That’s a really good question. I don’t know if, I would necessarily say that people, there are some people who are more empathetic than others. I think that empathy is actually a skill. And I think it’s a skill that we practice and it’s something that we are made aware of over time, as we are exposed to other emotions, and exposed to talking about our emotions and identifying them. That’s something that I think we often associate with inherent ability, but actually, you have to be gifted those, that terminology and that time with people who are older than you when you’re a child that helps you identify the emotions you’re feeling. So, I think that there are some people who may be more practiced in identifying empathy and in having empathetic responses. And then, on top of that, this will just go back to my point of trauma is so unique. It’s so unique to each individual, and so complex. So, no matter how connected to your empathetic side that you might feel, what’s going to really come into play is the trauma may be that you’ve experienced, or your life experiences, that have brought you to this point. And what resonates really closely with you. And so, some people are really good at setting up those boundaries, and not taking on all of that trauma with them. And other people, really have to practice that. So that when they walk into a room and they’re working with the survivor, they’re not taking on all the trauma for them. And I think that’s kind of another skill that needs to be practiced with, with people who have a really hard time, setting up that wall where you can be empathetic, and you can be someone who understands the emotions that are being felt and to be there with them. But at the same time, you’re not experiencing that story that moment with them, rather, you’re alongside with them, kind of alongside the ride. How you kind of do that container imagery for yourself is going to be a really important skill if you’re someone who has a hard time separating those boundaries for you. It’s a complex answer, that I don’t think it’s necessarily because some people are more empathetic, I think, is just that there are different skills associated with protecting ourselves from vicarious trauma, and it’s one of those things that, unfortunately, no matter how good you are setting up those containers for yourself there, it can still be a hard day. And based on your own trauma, your own experiences, you’re going to walk away with these stories, and we can’t expect ourselves to be otherwise.

Host: Such a good point, and yes, I’ve heard so many of our other speakers talk so much about emotional intelligence and having those social and emotional skills, and you’re right: they are skills. They are there are things that we can all learn, and we can all get better at. Such a fantastic point. Thank you so much.


Audience Question: Is it possible to experience secondary trauma or vicarious trauma, whichever the term is from witnessing violence in TV shows or movies? It’s not real violence but staged violence. In other words, is it possible for someone to experienced trauma responses to fictionalized violence that isn’t necessarily connected to their daily life or experiences? 

Callie Stewart: Okay, because I was going to say, yes. If you’re a survivor of a trauma and you watch something that is similar to your experience then 100%, that can be re-traumatizing. And I think it wouldn’t be vicarious trauma. Again, that’s kind of that constant exposure in a way that you’re taking on the real traumas of other people. It’s kind of like the closure of realizing that, you know, the world can be a scary place, and you kind of get overwhelmed by hearing all those stories. Whereas the kind of, you wouldn’t get vicarious trauma from watching a bunch of horror films necessarily. Secondary trauma is a really interesting question about that. I think that we have the ability, in our brains to say, oh, this is fake. And our brain knows that this is entertainment. It’s more watching violent images and that kind of thing. We more have to be concerned for younger people who maybe can’t identify the difference between reality and not reality when they’re watching films. And then also more for the people who could be re-traumatized by watching it. But you don’t have to worry so much about indirect or vicarious trauma as someone who has an experience of something like that. Unless you’re a child who has a hard time learning the differences between real and film.

Host: Fantastic point, I know, for me, personally, just to contribute to that. I know for me, personally that the silly horror films, or the James Patterson films,  where the story is clearly fictionalized, I can watch those films and have no problem. The ones that bother me are the ones where you know it happened in real life.

Callie Stewart: Yeah, and those are, those are scary things. And maybe if you watch something like that, you’ll have that night of being up all night and being freaked out, or whatever. But most of the time, not for everyone, this is extremely unique to you. But some time has passed since, your brain tends to kind of like, “You know, I’ve experienced enough intense ——— happen all the time,” you know. So, I think that’s how I would look at it.

Host: Well, and to your point, being able to take a step back and say, “Maybe watching those kinds of films are not healthy for me or are not a good idea for me.” And just sett those boundaries for yourself, right?

Callie Stewart: Yeah, exactly, exactly. If you watch a scary movie and it keeps you up all night, then definitely don’t watch it. You don’t have to do that to yourself. I had ————- realized that I was like looking behind coroners everywhere. I went and I stopped doing that. It’s not good.


Host: For the person who asked about empathy, there’s an interesting book out there. I just love it when Justice Clearinghouse members text in great resources that they’ve seen themselves. There’s a book out there called Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. So, you might want to check that book out. It may help you with your exploration about empathy and being empathic and such.


Audience Question: Are there times when you would recommend a victim not engage with the media in an effort to help raise awareness about certain things? 

Callie Stewart: Yes. 100%. It goes back to this idea of empowering with information. That survivor owes nothing to anyone else out there to contact the media, to talk about their story, to raise awareness. They’ve already survived, they experienced the tragedy themselves, it’s not their responsibility to get up and enter the public sphere. And we understand a lot of us in this field understand why they might not want to, right? It’s not exactly a really welcoming space most of the time. So, if they don’t want to, then, there should be no pressure to do that. On the other hand, if this gives that survivor, it makes them feel empowered, it provides them with meaning about their trauma. And you have the really important conversations that we’ve talked about, where you go through what the pros and cons of going public are, then yes, we can support them. But again, it has to be a consistent conversation and maybe even multiple conversations, where we’re going back and be like, okay, again, here are the benefits. Is this what you want to do? Here are the risks here are options that are available to us, and an option is to do nothing. And there are a variety of options in-between. And there’s an option to go public and talk to the media. And, of course, you know, is there in court proceedings or something? There’s going to be a whole other issue for that. They would want to talk to lawyers and do all that stuff. But I would say 100% there are times when they should not go to the media. And that needs to be respected by all means.

Host: Absolutely. And even with the best of intentions that they could step forward and want to be there and share their story at the same time, once it’s out in the public sphere, people can be cruel.

Callie Stewart: Yeah. Exactly. As we were talking about, there’s a lot of re-traumatization that can occur by coming forward. And it’s not necessarily a friendly place, and it can be, but it’s important to go through. We’ve all seen what backlash can look like for a ——— people. And it has really real consequences. There are many survivors who have come forward and not necessarily directly because of social media or the trauma. It’s a variety of reasons. But there are people who completed suicide after coming forward, because it was too much for them, right? So, it just is one of those things that it has really real consequences that we have to consider.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Trauma and Our Digital Selves.  



Additional Resources
5 years ago
Thoughts on Trauma from Amy Morgan
We loved this quote Amy Morgan made during her webinar, The Trauma of First Response to Cruelty. […]
Emotional Support for Mass Casualty Survivors
6 years ago
VIDEO: Emotional Support for Mass Casualty Survivors: An Interview with Duane Bowers
Once the police tape is gone, what are the best ways to support survivors of traumatic events, li […]
Trauma Infogrx Thumbnail
7 years ago
Infographic: What is Trauma?
"The truth, however, is that day-to-day police work includes enough stress and exposure to t […]
7 years ago
Trauma Informed Work
  Trauma Informed Work is providing service with the understanding that the client/witness/v […]