With a quick tap of their mobile phone screen, young people have access to a whole world of information on the internet and a network of communications via social media channels.

This can bring educational benefits, new opportunities and the chance to make new connections and reduce isolation.

But there’s also the risk that children might be exposed to some sort of trauma through these platforms – and it might be hard for them to escape from that.

Cybertrauma is any trauma caused through, with or from any internet-ready device.

It’s a broad topic that includes cyberbullying, child sexual exploitation, sharing of sexually explicit images, social media trolling, and any other way a person can feel victimised through this forum.

It’s a subject that’s been coming up in therapy rooms across the country for the past few years, as cybertrauma in any form can have a knock-on effect on children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Psychotherapist Catherine Knibbs will be speaking about this issue at our Children, Young People and Families conference that takes place in London on Saturday 9 February.

Risk of repeated trauma increases

“The risk of repeated trauma increases as technology increases,” said Catherine, who’s a doctoral researcher and specialises in the field of trauma and technology.

“It’s not just about crimes such as child sexual exploitation or about online bullying, some young people can be traumatised by clicking on a news story online. They can’t escape what they’ve seen.”  

“We need to understand what is happening online, how children can be affected by cybertrauma, so we can support them. There are so many different apps springing up all the time, we have to keep up to date. We have to engage with this technology so we know what young people are talking about.”

But once people are aware of the technologies out there, what can they say to young people who are being traumatised because of what they see online?

“The advice used to be just turn it off, leave your mobile phone or computer alone, don’t look at it. But that advice doesn’t work. You can’t take these young people out of this environment,” said Catherine.

“This virtual environment seems real to these children.

“They have to learn the tools to deal with this real virtual environment.  They need psycho-education and the tools of knowing how to report, block and delete, but also who they can turn to for advice.”

Cybertrauma is any trauma caused through, with or from any internet ready device.

Cybertrauma is any trauma caused through, with or from any internet ready device.

One worrying aspect of cybertrauma is how the thing that causes the trauma may keep coming back.

“We need to acknowledge this. There is permanence on the internet,” said Catherine.

“Take grief for example. We have always been told that death is permanent. But that doesn’t happen like that on the internet. There may still be a social media account for someone who has died, photos of them may flash up unexpectedly on social media accounts or somewhere else on the internet. It’s as if they are coming back to life.

“Repeated trauma is ‘virtually real’ when it comes to the internet.”

Technology has benefits

Catherine’s keen to stress that there are positives about the internet and new digital technologies.

 “There is a lot of fear and scare-mongering about social media and the digital world when it comes to children’s mental health.  These technologies can have many benefits, they don’t have to cause harm. I sometimes use computer games with my clients; they can help.

“From a mental health perspective and the way that children are developing, they are becoming more and more robust.”

But she said we all need to help young people understand the risks involved and how they can cope with what happens online.

“We all need to be more tech savvy. We need to understand these apps, online communities and how young people engage with it.”

Catherine delivered a workshop on Risk, danger or cybertrauma? Cyberspace and the impact on CYP and the therapist at our 2019 Children, Young People and Families conference.