When social media traumatizes teens: The roles of online risk exposure, coping, and post-traumatic stress

Bridget Christine McHugh, Pamela Wisniewski, Mary Beth Rosson, John M. Carroll

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to examine the extent to which negative online risk experiences (information breaches, explicit content exposure, cyberbullying and sexual solicitations) cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in adolescents. The study also explores whether teens’ short-term coping responses serve to mitigate PTSD or, instead, act as a response to stress from online events. Design/methodology/approach: The study utilized a web-based diary design over the course of two months. Data were analyzed using hierarchical linear modeling with repeated measures. Findings: The study confirmed that explicit content exposure, cyberbullying and sexual solicitations (but not information breaches) evoke symptoms of PTSD. Analyses also indicated that teens engage in active and communicative coping after they experience post-traumatic stress, regardless of risk type or frequency. Practical implications: The authors found that teens took active measures to cope with online risks soon after they felt threatened (within a week). Actively coping with stressful situations has been shown to enhance adolescent resilience and reduce long-term negative effects of risk exposure. If these early coping behaviors can be detected, social media platforms may be able to embed effective interventions to support healthy coping processes that can further protect teens against long-term harm from exposure to online risks. Originality/value: This is the first study to examine situational PTSD symptoms related to four types of adolescent online risk exposure within the week exposure occurred. By applying two competing theoretical frameworks (the adolescent resilience framework and transactional theory of stress), the authors show empirical evidence that suggests short-term coping responses are likely a stress reaction to PTSD, not a protective factor against it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1169-1188
Number of pages20
JournalInternet Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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