When social media traumatizes teens: The roles of online risk exposure, coping, and post-traumatic stress

Bridget Christine McHugh (Department of Psychology, University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, USA)
Pamela Wisniewski (Department of Computer Science, University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, USA)
Mary Beth Rosson (College of Information Sciences and Technology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA)
John M. Carroll (College of Information Sciences and Technology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA)

Internet Research

ISSN: 1066-2243

Publication date: 2 October 2018

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to examine the extent to which negative online risk experiences (information breaches, explicit content exposure, cyberbullying and sexual solicitations) cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in adolescents. The study also explores whether teens’ short-term coping responses serve to mitigate PTSD or, instead, act as a response to stress from online events.

Design/methodology/approach

The study utilized a web-based diary design over the course of two months. Data were analyzed using hierarchical linear modeling with repeated measures.

Findings

The study confirmed that explicit content exposure, cyberbullying and sexual solicitations (but not information breaches) evoke symptoms of PTSD. Analyses also indicated that teens engage in active and communicative coping after they experience post-traumatic stress, regardless of risk type or frequency.

Practical implications

The authors found that teens took active measures to cope with online risks soon after they felt threatened (within a week). Actively coping with stressful situations has been shown to enhance adolescent resilience and reduce long-term negative effects of risk exposure. If these early coping behaviors can be detected, social media platforms may be able to embed effective interventions to support healthy coping processes that can further protect teens against long-term harm from exposure to online risks.

Originality/value

This is the first study to examine situational PTSD symptoms related to four types of adolescent online risk exposure within the week exposure occurred. By applying two competing theoretical frameworks (the adolescent resilience framework and transactional theory of stress), the authors show empirical evidence that suggests short-term coping responses are likely a stress reaction to PTSD, not a protective factor against it.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the US National Science Foundation under Grant CNS-1018302. Any opinion, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US National Science Foundation.

Citation

McHugh, B.C., Wisniewski, P., Rosson, M.B. and Carroll, J.M. (2018), "When social media traumatizes teens: The roles of online risk exposure, coping, and post-traumatic stress", Internet Research, Vol. 28 No. 5, pp. 1169-1188. https://doi.org/10.1108/IntR-02-2017-0077

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Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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