On Wednesday afternoon, some of the terrified teenagers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, used social media to bear witness to the recurring tragedy of our time: a mass shooting.
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These children, who’ve grown up with smartphones at the ready, did what comes naturally to them and shared their experiences on platforms like Twitter and Snapchat. The images, sounds, and comments they transmitted to their friends and family quickly went viral, providing the world horrifying glimpses of what it’s like to hear a gunman roam the halls of your school.
By documenting their experiences, victims could give loved ones instant updates, receive prayers and sympathy in return, and perhaps even feel some sense of control. They also created a public record that cannot be ignored or sanitized, forcing Americans to again reckon with the political numbness to mass shootings.
Yet as their messages spread far and wide, it made students vulnerable to the harsh judgment of strangers, and increased the chances that social media bystanders would in turn be traumatized by the graphic content.
2018 is watching children live tweet mass shootings while other kids who’ve survived school shootings talk them through it
— Muna Mire (@Muna_Mire) February 14, 2018
Rob Coad, a school psychologist in Los Angeles County and member of the National Association of School Psychologists’ school safety crisis response committee, says mental health professionals like him are deeply concerned about the intensity of the images shooting victims witnessed – and the impact those scenes are having on children across the country today.
Coad, who has counseled students who’ve experienced gun violence at school, says that young people frequently talk about how what they witnessed was different than what movies and television portray.
“They’ll say, ‘I wasn’t prepared for the sounds people made. I wasn’t prepared for the smells. I wasn’t prepared for the things my eyes saw,'” explains Coad. “That was once reserved for people closest to the events. Now some of the filming going on has brought those intense moments into people’s minds and hearts.”
“Some of the filming going on has brought those intense moments into people’s minds and hearts.”
Coad says it’s very difficult for an adolescent’s brain to process what they’re seeing during a mass shooting, regardless of whether it’s first or secondhand imagery.
Snapchat videos and tweets sent from students at the school included video of rapid gunfire and screaming. Children described the fear and horror of watching a gunman kill a friend or classmate. A Snapchat feature even published a collection of firsthand posts from the shooting as a “featured” story, where it could be easily found and watched by users.
Aidan Minoff, a 14-year-old freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, told CNN Wednesday evening that he tweeted while hiding under a desk to alert the public.
“I was nervous and I just wanted it (the shooting) to be known, it was out there,” he said. “And I started getting notifications on my phone that people were engaging with the tweet and people really found it useful information.”
Another student tweeted, in response to criticism about using social media to document the shooting, that his classmates took video hoping to provide the police evidence and to educate the public and “help make sure this will not happen again.”
Receiving criticism from strangers online, however, is something that Coad says victims shouldn’t have to experience, and it may outweigh the positive effects of sympathetic messages.
Yet, social media has also given survivors a platform to demand change from politicians and the public. Multiple students have spoken unapologetically about their experiences, calling out, in particular, the conservative commentator Tomi Lahren for criticizing efforts to discuss gun control and saying “this isn’t about a gun.”
Coad believes it’s key for survivors to have a voice in the online debate about mass shootings.
“This is an unimaginable time in a powerless position and to be able to come out … and shift from victim to survivor advocating for what they think is right is so important,” he says.
Bystanders, however, have a less empowering experience when they encounter survivors’ chilling posts from the scene. Coad speaks to students after a shooting about removing or limiting access to social media posts that include graphic firsthand details in order to avoid traumatizing others.
Coad also points out that teenagers’ younger siblings tend to follow them on social media and read what they’ve shared. It’s entirely feasible that video from a shooting could pop up in a fifth grader’s social media feed, which is why Coad advocates for trying to protect young, vulnerable, and already traumatized youth from seeing graphic posts.
When the suggestion is framed around protecting others from harm, Coad says that students understand and respect that.
“The mind can become overwhelmed and confused.”
Limiting other people’s exposure at a certain point is particularly important because it’s hard to identify those who’ve experienced vicarious trauma. They may have seen social media posts about an incident alone in their bedroom, in the hallway of their school, or while riding in the backseat of a parent’s car – all while wearing headphones that isolate them from the outside world.
“The mind can become overwhelmed and confused,” he says, adding that adults have a responsibility to “keep kids away from getting caught in that loop where they continue to watch it and transmit it and comment on it.”
When a child seems distant and loses the ability to manage daily life, it could be a sign that they’re suffering from the prolonged effects of trauma. Coad urges those students to reach out for help and talk to a trusted adult about what they’re experiencing. While some children and adolescents might want to keep their turmoil private, those unshared emotions can turn into an overwhelming secret.
“We [can] fully acknowledge what has happened and what they’ve been through, but also start talking about not allowing themselves to lose balance,” he says. “We don’t want them stuck and lost in that moment, and not able to move forward.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.