This article contains descriptions of abuse.
In November, my For You page (FYP) was a constant stream of videos from people sharing deeply traumatic experiences. Many of the creators were participating in specific trends that either partly or primarily centered on experiences of abuse and grief. For instance, one trending song, “Seventeen Going Under” by Sam Fender, has largely soundtracked stories of domestic violence, child abuse, or sexual abuse. Another song, “Lights Are On” by Tom Rosenthal, has become the go-to song for experiences with bullying, grief, or the same types of abuse listed above. There are several more of these trends that have popped up just in the last month.
I felt unsettled by these trends, not necessarily because of the actual subject matter of the individual videos, but because of the sheer quantity of videos I was receiving. After speaking to friends and scrolling through the comments of some of these videos, it appears I’m not the only one.
“This is the 7th survivor on my fyp today and the accused is the dad,” reads one comment under a “Lights Are On” video detailing child sexual abuse. “I can’t watch these anymore.”
There are hundreds of videos under these sounds detailing similar experiences of abuse and loss. It can feel voyeuristic or uncomfortable at times to watch strangers cry or scream while detailing their pain, especially when you’re continuously exposed to this content. However, while it can be jarring to see these videos on your FYP, they can also help normalize discussions about difficult topics and signal to other survivors that they aren’t alone.
Amanda Woolston, licensed clinical social worker and therapist at the Center for Grief and Trauma Therapy, tells the Daily Dot that trauma sharing on TikTok is not a bad thing. She says many trauma survivors, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, “spend a lot of their lives not being believed.” But it can be affirming and empowering for people to share their experiences online.
“Storytelling online can help a traumatized person process their experiences and feel less lonely by connecting with similar stories shared by others,” she says. “It provides these creators with an opportunity to be supported and to support others. On a broader scale, these stories provide content consumers with a broader understanding of human experiences and more opportunity to build empathy and social consciousness.”
The issue, it seems, does not lie in the actual sharing of trauma itself, but the way that TikTok, as a platform, pushes this content to viewers. TikTok’s “For You” algorithm has been lauded for its hyper-specific curation, and each person’s FYP is essentially tailored to their interests, experiences, and taste. This has also made the app more addictive, and at times, even dangerous. As a result, when it comes to videos about trauma on TikTok, Wollston says, “If you watch one of those videos, it’s going to show you all of them.” Thus trauma sharing, while generally positive, can bring unintended consequences for both creators and consumers.
Aside from the usual criticism people face when their videos go viral, creators who make content about their trauma can also land on the receiving end of mass “trauma dumping”—which occurs when people share or detail their traumatic experiences in an unsolicited way. While comments sections can be a place for other survivors to commiserate and support each other, a sudden influx of traumatic stories can be harmful to the original creator. Woolston says viewers need to learn how to build better boundaries when it comes to other people’s life experiences.
“When someone’s sharing, they want to be listened to and they want to feel not alone,” she says. “So they don’t need to know that you think they’re wrong. They don’t need to know all of that. They don’t need to hear comments about their appearance. They don’t need to be asked intrusive questions. They don’t necessarily need to hear all of your trauma.”
Woolston also adds that creators should be aware of the potentially harmful comments they may receive as a result of posting their videos, and “take self-protective precautions for how they interact with their audience.”
Additionally, continuous exposure to trauma videos by the TikTok algorithm can feel like a sort of trauma dump itself, leaving viewers mentally and emotionally strained. A user may only want to like or support one video relating to abuse or grief, but because of TikTok’s algorithm, they’ll start seeing numerous traumatic videos in one sitting, which can cause distress.
“What content a user was in the headspace to consume yesterday may be different today,” Wollston says. “However, TikTok will still bring those heavier videos repeatedly across their feed. Exposure to too much suffering when someone does not feel prepared for it or as though it’s uninvited may cause them to suffer.”
Of course, viewers can try to opt out of seeing this kind of content, but avoiding triggering videos is not so easy. TikTok pushes and plays videos automatically, which can leave little time for users to scroll away. TikTok has content warning pop-ups that allow users to opt in to watching certain videos, but it does not appear on all sensitive content. Users can block a specific sound from popping up in their algorithm, but only if the video using it appears on their FYP first.
Woolston has suggestions for navigating a triggering FYP. She says creators should place content warnings on their traumatic videos because they “are not only courteous but socially responsible.” The warnings allow viewers to quickly decide to opt in or out. But when the TikTok FYP becomes too triggering to manage, Woolston says she refers people to Instagram, where they can have a similar, but more controlled, experience with Reels. Alternatively, you can create a separate TikTok and curate a new FYP (something I have been trying to do lately).
The platform’s moderation resources may be imperfect, but there are at least steps that creators and consumers can take to protect themselves from TikTok’s tendency to trauma dump.
If you are a victim of sexual assault or want more information on sexual assault, contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).