CW: themes of abuse and eating disorders
Writer Charlotte Christian analyses the rise of oversharing and “trauma dumping” on social media, and discusses the implications for the mental health of younger generations.
Internet culture can seem all consuming in a post-lockdown world that has seen the explosion of everyone’s new favourite social media site TikTok and with it, the rapid rise and fall of trends that encourage the sharing of deeply personal experiences. Open up TikTok and generally, you’ll be met with everything from viral dances, holidays I definitely can’t afford, and the latest iteration of avocado toast. But dispersed amongst relatively harmless content, are videos of teen girls dancing to voicemails of abusive ex-partners, people conveying their experiences with abuse or mistreatment set to viral sounds, and potentially triggering “what I eat in a day” vlogs. All symptoms of an online culture that cultivates oversharing and “trauma dumping”.
Oversharing is often considered a negative thing, with culprits overstepping the invisible boundaries that determine the “correct” amount of personal information that should be shared. Arguably, this narrative is harmful, if not hypocritical when conversations around mental health increasingly advocate for people to speak out. Dr Ysabel Gerrard, a lecturer in Digital Media and Society says, “On social media, you see people sharing stuff online in a way which they simply can’t with their friends or families. If people are sharing a lot but they’re creating a space they don’t otherwise have in their life — then that’s amazing and can be integral to their survival.” Take the TikTok trend that first emerged in 2019 that saw teenagers and young women interpretively dancing in defiance and response to abusive voice messages left by partners. Despite the upsetting nature of the messages, this trend became a collective expression of solidarity – and surely some strength can be found in that? We should remain conscious of the communities and connections created by those who share their mental health struggles and experiences with abuse, albeit set to a viral tune. So often, social media portrays a polished version of someone’s life, thus there must be power in revealing the darker aspects as well?
But the conversation doesn’t end here. The consequences of oversharing can be damaging for both sharer and viewer. Dr Chris Hand, a lecturer here at the University of Glasgow in cyber-psychology stated: “The more people tend to present about themselves, the less sympathy others have when things go wrong.” So, whilst support can be found online, the comment sections of many TikTok videos tell a different tale. Hate directed at the creator is one issue, but the impact on other users should not be ignored.
Videos sharing experiences of traumatic events are regularly referred to as “trauma dumps” with clinical psychologist Carla Manly describing the practice as done in an “unsolicited, unprepared way, where a person dumps traumatic thoughts, feelings, energy onto an unsuspecting person”. This is most recently evident in the TikTok trend of people sharing then and now photos to the lyrics of Sam Fender’s Seventeen Going Under. Users would post pictures of themselves with a partner or family member, and explicit images of injuries and bruises, to the words “I was far too scared to hit him”, followed by themselves lip-syncing to the latter lyrics: “…but I would hit him in a heartbeat now”, the obvious implication being an experience of abuse. These trends can prove a cathartic release for such users, enabling them to take agency in crafting their own narrative, yet risk obviously lies in these videos’ exposure to vulnerable people. The #traumadump hashtag alone has over 36.4 million views, and with no way to filter trauma-dumping content if the video does not have a hashtag, the question arises as to whether TikTok is doing enough to safeguard the well-being of its users?
It is not news that social media has a damaging impact on users’ body image, but many experts are concerned that the hugely popular “what I eat in a day” format marks the latest revival in toxic diet culture. The #whatieatinaday hashtag has over 10.9 billion views with a worrying proportion of videos showcasing small quantities of low-carb foods alongside shots of slim bodies. The trend has been used positively by some creators recovering from eating disorders, wishing to share their journey towards a healthy relationship with food. But concern lies with the aesthetically shot “aspirational” content that does not reflect healthy ways of eating. Alison Chase, director of America’s specialist Eating Recovery Centre, said these videos “can set the viewer up for unrealistic expectations and lead to disordered behaviours”. The perception may be that the early 2000s era of “heroin chic” marked the peak of diet culture, yet a 2020 study carried out by UCL determined that Gen Z are more concerned with weight loss than previous generations. With younger viewers more susceptible to being influenced, TikTok has added a disclaimer under the #whatieatinaday page, pointing users to seek support if they are experiencing concerns around body image, food or exercise, linking eating disorder charity Beat.
Yes, there is the argument that seeing others eating habits – if realistic – can help some people’s relationship with food… but can food content ever be interacted with in a fully healthy way? Ultimately, it may always be triggering for someone. Is the onus on creators to be more responsible in what they put out, to be more aware of the potential impact on their audience?
Is oversharing on TikTok ethical? This cannot be answered definitively. It is evident that TikTok can prove a vital vehicle of support, fostering communities and enabling expressions of solidarity- even if that is through a viral sound or trend. It remains that certain aspects of oversharing can be detrimental to creator and viewer alike and can encourage unhealthy emotional practices such as trauma dumping, or the setting harmful standards with regards to body image. Perhaps the most important lesson to take away is the need for wider accessibility to effective and professional mental healthcare.