On May 25th, a picture of me with my ex at his graduation ceremony six years ago popped up on my Facebook feed and my breath became short. I was overcome with a fear I thought was long gone. If you don't live with it yourself, you may be unfamiliar with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The most common are reliving the event through flashbacks or nightmares, avoiding anything that may remind you of your past trauma, and being constantly "on guard," along with a slew of other unpleasant emotional and physical manifestations.
Since Facebook is the most globally ubiquitous social media site, I wanted to determine which aspects of its design were most problematic for people like me, who suffer from the effects of trauma. I began with my reaction to Facebook's "On This Day" post, which randomly excavates an image from years ago that the algorithm wants to remind us of. The problem is, not everyone wants to see their smiling ex's face. I had an emotionally abusive relationship with my own ex, who lied and manipulated his way into sex with me a few months after I had been raped. The betrayal created layers of mistrust and fear that further complicated my rape trauma.
"Traumatic reminders, pictures on your timeline, 'On This Day' anniversaries," and other content that would appear by way of that feature would be difficult for a trauma survivor to endure, says Jon Elhai, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toledo who studies trauma, PTSD, and cyber-psychology.
This isn't the only place on Facebook that could set you off. If you have mutual friends with someone who has traumatized you, photos of that person might pop up in your Facebook feed. Or worse—you or a friend could post something to Facebook to commemorate a night out, say, thereby potentially revealing your location to a past abuser. A photo of a restaurant or bar could be familiar-looking or someone could tag you or your location, and a perpetrator could show up, uninvited.
Elhai also mentions Facebook's "suggested friends" feature as a potential problem. He's heard many examples of his clients seeing past perpetrators on that list. They can pop up because of mutual friends, but sometimes if you attach your phone number to Facebook, it will use big data to find commonalities. If overlap exists, Facebook's nosy algorithm will suggest that person to you, whether or not they're someone you want as a friend.
The same can happen with someone you've seen in a therapist or psychiatrist's office, which is creepy as hell. If you both have your mental health provider's number in your phone and have connected your number to Facebook, an anonymous face in the waiting room can become a real person—picture and all—and you become one to them. If you've endured trauma, the idea of losing anonymity against your will can be upsetting at best and panic-inducing at worst. Elhai does point out that "there is actually a beneficial effect of being reminded of your trauma and then to think about it...one of the things we know in mental health is that when you avoid too much, it causes problems for you." Getting to that point, however, takes more time for some than others.
While Facebook doesn't intend to be a painful abyss of purposely discarded memories, its features could inadvertently make a career out of triggering you. For instance, I "divorced" my father when I was 18 because I learned he had been physically and sexually abusive to my mother, my best friend's mother, and probably many other women as well. After that, I never wanted him to be able to find me, but when I became a freelance writer, I struggled with increasing my reach and following while also trying to remain safely under his radar.
Generally the advice people give is "just block them," but since anyone can create a new account surreptitiously, it can become harder to avoid message requests from people you never want to see again. Facebook's Principles uses comforting language, saying that any two people can connect "as long as they both consent to the connection," and that "people should have the freedom to decide with whom they will share their information, and to set privacy controls to protect those choices." Yet sometimes privacy controls aren't enough to protect your information from being seen and shared.
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Elhai notes that "a lot of people use variations on their real names" to protect themselves against being found, but Facebook's Terms of Service state that "You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook." So I'm running a risk here by stating that my Facebook profile does not reflect my legal name, but I've chosen to identify myself that way in order to protect myself. But even that violation didn't entirely solve the problem. My father also violated the Terms of Service by creating a second personal account—one I didn't know about and therefore hadn't blocked—and messaged me.
You can get around this type of trauma-trigger by making your account unsearchable, Elhai advises me. In that case all friend requests would have to be initiated by me. No one would be able to find me otherwise. He also says that I could put up a profile picture that isn't of myself to further mask my identity. But should I have to, simply to participate in the social media universe?
There aren't many solutions for dealing with these Facebook issues so much as there are bandages for particularly difficult wounds. If you choose to stay logged in, using the privacy features and turning your notifications off can at least reduce the effects of triggers.
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