Nestled between countless dance and comedy videos on TikTok is the occasional video about a traumatic event that makes you stop scrolling in shock. The comments are split evenly between affirmations of support and requests for a "storytime" video explaining the traumatic situation that's only briefly alluded to. We’ve all witnessed this before: the online trauma dump. Sometimes these videos are a pure spoken confessional, but a lot of the time people use popular audios to joke about their most traumatic life experiences to millions of viewers.
According to clinical psychologist Carla Manly, trauma dumping is done in an “unsolicited, unprepared way, where a person dumps traumatic thoughts, feelings, energy onto an unsuspecting person.” The term “trauma dumping” has become somewhat of a buzzword across social media, even more so after a viral, highly criticized TikTok of a therapist joking about clients’ trauma dumping at their first appointment went viral in late October.
The internet used to be a space to exist anonymously, but now people utilize it to be more personal than ever. On Instagram and Snapchat, 'finstas' or private stories are a popular space to vent all of one’s thoughts, but those are typically limited to a user’s very close friends. In contrast, a public TikTok, even if the user has only a small number of followers, can go insanely viral in a matter of hours. Oversharing has existed as long as the internet has, but TikTok’s unique algorithm brings people’s deepest and darkest confessions to more people all at once. For instance, as of January, the #traumadump tag on TikTok has over 23 million views, while #traumadumping has 11.8 million views.
Sharing one’s trauma may feel liberating at first. Posting on TikTok or other platforms can feel like shouting into a void, a perfect place to unload your deepest feelings. Emily Huynh (C ’24) who is the Board Director for Penn Benjamins, Penn's student–run peer counseling organization, says "People don’t typically go on social media with the mindset of 'I need help' or 'I need support'—it’s more so 'I need to let it all out.'"
However, the thousands or millions of unconsenting viewers subjected to that trauma can make this type of oversharing dangerous—especially because there isn’t a way to filter it from one’s feed.
In real life, trauma dumping onto complete strangers is less common, but personal boundaries on social media platforms like TikTok are essentially nonexistent. Though it’s often used for more serious purposes, TikTok is used by most people to keep track of ongoing trends and memes. The blurring of personal boundaries, combined with TikTok’s usage for memes, makes it easy for trauma dumps to be placed into popular meme formats or even sarcastic comments on positive videos so that the reader or viewer is caught off guard. Sometimes, audios specifically meant for trauma dumping can become a trend on their own, simultaneously normalizing discussions about mental health while also desensitizing viewers to them.
"If I’m going to trauma dump to my friend, I’d be like, 'Hey, are you here? Are you open to hear this stuff I’m going through?' But online, you can just put [your trauma] out there, and many people don’t always want to see that," Emily comments.
As we scroll through TikTok, we consume so much of other people’s lives. This can take an enormous toll on one’s mental health, especially when people use their trauma to increase a meme’s shock value. Though psychologists have identified that humor is a healthy and helpful coping strategy, interjecting serious or traumatic events into a popular audio can make it difficult for people to properly prepare themselves to hear about someone else’s traumatic life experiences.
Emily’s advice for managing your mental health while scrolling online? Be open to taking time off.
"It’s good to acknowledge when the stuff you’re consuming online is actually hurting you instead of being more conducive to your mental health. If I were to see something triggering on TikTok, which I have in the past, I’d try to just stay away from the app for a bit and do other things that make me happy," she says. Psychology Today also recommends alternative coping methods for those who use trauma dumping as a coping strategy, such as keeping a journal, practicing meditation, or doing something creative.
Talking about mental health, including what trauma looks like, on social media can be incredibly valuable because it reduces negative stigmas associated with trauma and tells people that they are not alone. Without candid discussions about mental health, many would be encouraged to stay silent when they’re struggling.
Nevertheless, these conversations should be consensual on both sides, which can be done by providing trigger warnings to viewers on social media. Focusing on alternatives to trauma dumping can make for more productive and healthy conversations about mental health that both sides of the conversation feel equipped to handle.