Media Matters: Online Safe Spaces for Trauma Survivors: A Helpful Source of Social Support?
Posted 24 October 2016 in StressPoints by Charla Rhodes, BA
A safe space is a place in which individuals can find refuge and protection from insensitivity, discrimination, persecution, and other potentially negative experiences. Debate on the utility of safe spaces at universities grows more controversial as college campuses struggle to address the growing numbers of students calling for their presence. The University of Chicago took a strong stance when they penned a letter to the incoming freshman class stating that they do not support “trigger warnings and safe spaces.” Conversely, California State University at Los Angeles recently announced that it would offer “black-priority housing” as a response to Black Lives Matter protestors’ call for “a safe space to congregate, connect, and learn.” While the presence or absence of these spaces at universities is fiercely debated, the internet continues to thrive as a mecca of safe space groups.
An important component of trauma-informed care is creating a safe space. However, many trauma-exposed individuals do not initially seek treatment. With the widespread availability of the internet and potential anonymity, many individuals turn to online resources. There are thousands of different virtual safe spaces available online to trauma survivors. Some of these spaces are created on Facebook as “groups,” which can have as few as two members to as many as ten thousand. Each group has a guiding set of rules and principles and is oriented towards a specific group of people.
For example, there are many available groups for general “Survivors of Trauma,” as well as more specific groups created for “Female PTSD Survivors of Childhood Trauma,” “Survivors of Ecclesiastic Abuse,” and trauma survivors in specific geographic regions. Some of these groups are publically searchable, but many are not so as to protect the identities of the group participants.
Methods of joining and participating in a safe space vary depending on the platform. For example, on Facebook, an individual interested in participating in a given group requests to join and is accepted or rejected by a moderator. Once in a group, members have the ability to post topics for group discussion and participate in posts initiated by others. Members share news stories and articles relevant to their trauma, or share personal experiences. The specific group rules dictate the ways in which other members can respond. Members who do not adhere to the group rules, often by posting triggering material or making offensive comments, are removed by moderators and blocked from re-joining. In short, sense of safety is the priority.
Proponents of online safe spaces, especially those who actively utilize them, suggest that engagement in these groups can be vital for an individual’s mental health. In one study, participants who self-harmed reported that virtually connecting with others offered a sense of community and could be a valuable tool to get support and advice (Whitlock, Powers, & Eckenrode, 2006). In another study, online spaces served as a “sanctuary” for individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa (Gavin, Rodham, & Poyer, 2008). Indeed, having a sense of community and social support has been shown to serve as a protective factor for veterans against psychopathology and community reintegration problems (Thomas & Bowie, 2016; Smith et al., 2016). Online spaces can serve as an accessible and effective community for trauma survivors.
However, safe spaces may not be adaptive for everyone and might even cause harm. For example, trauma exposure (i.e., child maltreatment) was a significant predictor of Internet addiction; PTSD symptoms served as a mediator in that relation (Hsieh et al, 2016). Spending excessive amounts of time online can function as a maladaptive coping mechanism or self-medicating behavior, comparable to other types of addiction (Hsieh et al, 2016).
Additionally, some online spaces aimed at survivors are anything but safe. Some researchers have noted that online forums may normalize dangerous coping strategies or discourage members from seeking professional services (Gavin, Rodman, & Poyer, 2008). For example, a plethora of pro-suicide and pro-nonsuicidal self-injury websites are easily accessible online. Many websites and chat rooms provide information on the pros and cons of various suicide and self-harm methods and often offer encouragement to readers to engage in described acts.
As safe spaces continue to grow and more people turn to electronic and virtual forms of support, ongoing research investigating the impact of participation in online safe spaces by trauma survivors is necessary. Despite the widespread utilization of safe spaces, there is very little research, particularly with trauma-exposed individuals, regarding the utility and efficacy. The clinical implications, particularly whether these online safe spaces should be championed or avoided, are also noteworthy, as we continue navigating uncharted territory of safe spaces.
About the Author
Charla Rhodes, BA, is a research technician at the Boston VA Healthcare system under the mentorship of Dr. Brett Litz. She graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with degrees in psychology and anthropology. She plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology and hopes to conduct community-level research with underserved populations.
Gavin, J., Rodham, K., & Poyer, H. (2008). The presentation of “pro-anorexia” in online group interactions. Qualitative Health Research, 18, 325-333.
Hsieh, Yi-Ping, et al. (2016). Associations between child maltreatment, PTSD, and internet addiction among Taiwanese students. Computers in Human Behavior, 56, 209-214.
Smith, N. B., Mota, N., Tsai, J., Monteith, L., Harpaz-Rotem, I., Southwick, S. M., & Pietrzak, R. H. (2016). Nature and determinants of suicidal ideation among US veterans: Results from the national health and resilience in veterans study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 197, 66-73.
Thomas, V. & Bowie, S. (2016) Sense of Community: Is it a Protective Factor for Military Veterans? Journal of Social Service Research, 42, 313-331.
Whitlock, J., Powers, J., & Eckenrode, J. (2006). The virtual cutting edge: The Internet and adolescent self-injury. Developmental Psychology, 42, 407-417.