Among the undeniable advantages of the hyperconnected world we learned to live in, some adverse effects lurk behind the algorithm's rewards. They’re damaging our personal and professional relationships and younger generations' sense of reciprocity, attention span, and ability to assess danger.
Our world is already a mesh between digital and analog experiences, rapidly leaning into making virtual interactions the norm.
So what can we expect to happen to us, biological beings, in non-biological settings?
In this episode, Catherine Knibbs joins us to talk about cybertrauma, how it feels, how it works, and how we can deal with it.
As a Cybertrauma Clinician and Researcher, international educator, Consultant, TEDx Speaker, and the Author of "Cybertrauma: The Darker Side of the Internet for Children and Young People," Catherine’s experience pierces deep into the invisible effects of the cyber territory on our bodies, emotions, and minds.
Throughout our conversation, she invites us to rethink our relationship with technology, the impact of social media on the development of children, and how our phones' omnipresence affects our relationship with our kids, significant others, and colleagues.
Catherine also shares why she started studying this issue and explains the importance of self-care and creating healthy boundaries with social media.
We also discuss cyberbullying, the effects traumatic content has on our minds and bodies, smartphone addiction, and more.
In this episode, you will learn:
What cybertrauma really is (3:40)
How the body absorbs and responds to cybertrauma (11:00)
The devastating effects of the constant presence of cell phones (18:20)
Why we feel compelled to jump onto social media (24:00)
The effects of virtual reality environments on our brains (28:20)
What led Catherine to dedicate herself to studying cybertrauma (32:10)
What we can do to help ourselves adapt to these challenges (40:00)
Catherine is a Researcher, Psychotherapy Clinician, Author, Speaker, and Doctoral candidate looking at the real harm children suffer in a world of technology, which is advancing quicker than many adults can keep up with.
She's spent over 25 years in engineering in settings such as the army, IT, and computer tech and over a decade in working with children and adults directly around issues relating to the internet, from bullying to porn viewing, from cybercrime to cybersecurity, and more.
Catherine writes about issues such as the impact of tech on the developing child, the impact of cybertrauma and the issues of immersive technology on eyes, brains, and bodies.
She also runs a company that educates professionals about child protection around tech and digital spaces and teach therapists how to be 'safe AND secure' when using tech to ensure they protect their clients.
- Catherine's website
- Bodies, Brains, and Technology - The Real Social Dilemma | Catherine Knibbs | TEDxDoncaster
- Book: Catherine Knibbs - Cybertrauma: The Darker Side Of The Internet For Children And Young People
- Catherine on Twitter
- Dr. Gabor Maté's website
- The Social Dilemma
- The Polyvagal Theory
- Transactional analysis
- Breneé Brown on empathy (video)
- Cleveland Clinic - Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
- Mark Zuckerberg: First Interview in the Metaverse | Lex Fridman Podcast #398
- Book: Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. - The Power of Showing Up
[00:57] Andra Zaharia: I have a lot to think about after the conversation that I've just had with Catherine Knibbs, today's guest. Her approach, her experience, and her focus on cybertrauma have taught me a lot. They've also given me a lot to think about when it comes to my own behavior, and to my relationship with technology, with my own body, and with the people around me. Now, this exploration of cybertrauma—what it feels like, and how we can recognize, address it, and try to heal from it—is a truly deep experience. This is why I feel so grateful that I got to talk to Catherine, who is an online harms consultant, a psychotherapist, but also a trainer, a speaker, and an author. The way she unpacks cybertrauma, the way she explains how it works, how it feels, and what we can do to be aware of it, and to just try to process it in a way that's healthy for us, has really made me refocus some of my energy and attention on this topic. She is truly one of the best people in the space, one of the most generous ones, and someone who can teach us a lot about ourselves and our relationship with technology and everything cyber-related. I hope this episode gives you inspiration or just prompts you to carve out some time and some space for you to think about the things that Catherine talks about, for you to say and your own experience around cybertrauma, and of the things in your life that are serving you. I believe that our relationship with technology is not something that we can ignore simply because it's too impactful for us to do so. So, enjoy this episode.
[03:14] Andra Zaharia: Catherine, you specialize in solving a problem that's still unacknowledged, while at the same time, it's pervasive and deeply, deeply impactful. What does cybertrauma feel like? What does it look like?
[03:31] Catherine Knibbs: Oh, what a great question to start with. So, trauma currently is a little bit of a buzzword. So, if I just set the scene, what we've got in the world at the moment is an understanding that trauma is defined by many different disciplines. One of them is the medical community. And that usually refers to depths of wound, blood loss, et cetera. But when we talk about interpersonal or intrapersonal—that's what happens within you or what happens between people—we have lots of different types of trauma. Sometimes people will refer to it as "little T's" and "big T's". So, there are the small types of trauma where it's accumulative over time, a little bit like a jar of marbles. People experiencing trauma have many, many different responses, and one of the nicest framings of trauma itself is by somebody called Gabor Ma Tei. And he explains that trauma is not what happens to you. It's what happens inside you. Now, in that terminology, the board is actually referencing in the real-world types of trauma. One of the difficulties about this cybertrauma definition is I've started to look at what this is like when it involves technology, and of course, that's been around for a long time. One of the difficulties about explaining what cybertrauma feels like is trying to describe what trauma is in a complete sentence. So, if I go back to that, "it's not what happens to you. It's what happens inside you", we're actually talking about what happens to you when you're using technology. And that technology facilitates something that can leave you feeling powerless. So, for a lot of my clients who I work with in face-to-face settings, and obviously doing therapy online, we're talking about something that they've seen, something that they've heard, something that has happened to them in forms of text. And one of the things we discussed right at the beginning is I'm not going to get into the technical definitions of what cybertrauma actually is. But what it feels like, is powerlessness. It feels like an expansiveness of loneliness for a lot of people. Because when somebody experiences cybertrauma, it depends on the type of trauma. But what we are looking at is, "I wasn't ready", or "I didn't know this particular thing was going to happen".
[06:07] Catherine Knibbs: And the difference between cybertrauma and what I call corporeal trauma, is in the real world, generally, your body gets an indication of something that's about to happen. For example, if somebody was sneaking up behind you, you would detect that through your body. And I'm going to sound a little bit "woo woo" now, but you have electromagnetic frequencies within your body. All of your cells are susceptible to other frequencies around you. And if you were, I don't know, walking down the street and somebody wanted to come and steal your handbag, your purse, your wallet, your body would get an indication microseconds before that interaction. And one of the differences about technology is those signals are not present. So, the impact of trauma can actually be faster, it can intrude into your psyche—I know that I'm using a therapy-type term there—it can intrude much more quickly. And that is the fascination that I've had with this particular area over the last probably decade or so. And I'm really, really curious as to what happens for a person versus the corporeal versus the virtual. So, what it feels like, is a really difficult question to answer. And I'm aware that I've rambled on for a couple of minutes over what does it feel like but I think the context is really, really important. So, cybertrauma can be something that maybe you're scrolling on, let's go with the big ones, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and your body is not prepared for something that is actually quite terrible to watch. It can be something you hear on what's phrased as a "loud cast". So, it might be that somebody's watching something, I don't know, maybe a horror movie, on the train. Or maybe they're having a conversation with somebody. And there's a really delicate conversation taking place and you actually overhear it. In my world, in terms of trauma therapy, we talk about listening to hearing somebody's story is just as impactful as it can be for seeing somebody. So, there's various forms of language that go around this, I happen to use cybertrauma as a way to define what's different to the real world.
[08:39] Andra Zaharia: That's extremely helpful, especially because, as you were talking about—as I kept going through my personal experience, through the things that I feel have had an impact on me—things that I've seen online, that I've heard online. One of these little teases, the small traumatic events that tend to accumulate over time—I kept thinking about how I feel when I read the news, which I only do so online. I don't have cable TV; I avoid it on purpose. But I do try to stay aware with some things that are of interest to me. And that accumulation of constantly negative, deeply hurtful news that I hear — it has this cumulative effect. I feel my body tightening; I feel my heartbeat increasing; I feel the stress of feeling a bit hopeless, just a bit overwhelmed. And those are things that, again, we tend to want to power through because we know that there's a cost of reading the news when we're aware of this, but it still can create a lot of damage in the long term, not to mention a bunch of other things that hurt our self-esteem. A lot of oversharing that feels, again, not very intrusive. I wasn't ready for this outpour of someone else's life into my brain, which is actually one of the reasons why I decided to delete my Facebook and Instagram account in 2018 simply because I felt like so much of my energy and so much of my mental space were just taken over by somebody else's lives and experiences and I needed more space for my own, and that was one of the reasons. But it does tend to accumulate, and I think that everyone listening to this episode and listening to you talk, and hopefully, listening to your TED talk and reading your books will think back through their experiences and find at least one instance where they felt like they resonate with what cybertrauma feels like.
[10:54] Catherine Knibbs: I've just nodded all the way through that under there in terms of, so for people listening, I'm kind of nodding away in connection with a lot of what you've just talked about there in terms of those bodily symptoms, are what we call a stress response. So lots of people have heard of fight or flight. It's still contested, but there is a theory that I rely on quite a bit in terms of being able to talk with my clients. So, this theory is called the polyvagal theory. At the moment, there are a lot of people arguing about whether it's accurate or scientifically robust. But for the purposes of having a conversation with somebody, when you begin to understand what happens during trauma and what happens during stress, you can pretty much identify with "Yes, in that moment, I wanted to run away, or I felt a recoil. So I moved away from the screen slightly; I gasped." All of these processes are what we do when we are under stress. So generally, it's your breathing rate that changes, your heart rate changes. And it affects something called heart rate variability, your heart rate variability, and this information that goes from your body goes up to your brain in what we call an afferent process. And then your brain has to decipher, decode, and make a decision about what you do. When I'm explaining trauma to people, I talk about that there are a number of responses that we can have. And the one that's emitted from technology is this ability to look to somebody to say, "Is this okay?" Now, babies do this all of the time. If they're not sure about something, they will flick their eyes to their parent and say, "Is your face frightened? Do you look worried about this situation? Should I be worried?" And that's what we get really, really early on. And that's how we learn to kind of assess a situation. Now, that isn't present when you're looking at a screen. And what you've talked about—with your heart racing, that feeling of hopelessness, accumulative negativity, which is something that our brains are wired to look for, because that's what keeps us safe—that's what's leading to pretty much a worldwide compassion fatigue. It's leading to a saturation of us being fed up of encountering negativity day in, day out, on more than one platform, in so many different spaces. Which I think, so the documentary, "The Social Dilemma," I think that's what they were trying to talk about, even though they kept using this phrase, "the limbic hijack." Actually, we're a little bit more complicated than the limbic system in the brain. And what you talked to Andrew was beautifully put in terms of that feeling that we are all facing at the moment. And I think many people are kind of getting to a point where they don't want to be on social media all of the time.
[13:53] Andra Zaharia: Well, I thought so, honestly, let's hope for that. Because I feel like, unfortunately, change often happens when we reach a certain threshold where some of our, let's say, biological mechanisms kick in, and tell us like, "Look, I can't do this anymore. We need to change something." Our bodies have so much wisdom. And if we'd only listened to them more, we could prevent some potentially health-threatening and life-threatening situations in which we ended up because of these accumulated effects throughout our lives. The bad eating habits, the too much sitting, all of the things. It's the same with our relationship with the Internet. And it's something that's so new to us as humans, that I feel like we only have an inkling of how deep this impact is. And I know you do a lot—well, most of your work is focused on children and focused on how these generations are developing in such a new way, and how Cybertrauma affects them. And I was wondering if you could share some of the things that you've seen happen because of these lack of, again, social cues and confirmation and safe spaces to check in around what they see, what they hear, what they experience.
[15:19] Catherine Knibbs: Okay, so I'm going to talk pre-COVID, mainly because this is what I have been looking at. So, I work with tiny little children all the way through to people in their 70s. As a therapist, I get quite a broad range. But what I've really noticed — so if I give you the context, I'm a mom of children who are in the mid-20s. I have a child as old as the internet. So, there is this thing about — I watched my children growing up in and around this technology. And I've watched what pretty much Child Development theories — and will tell us about how children grow up, so to speak. One of the things I've noticed is the ability to sit in a therapy office with me, and maintain eye contact has diminished. That is pretty much why I went to do the TED Talk. But there is certainly something that I don't want to say I'm ranting about it because that's the word that I often use. But that's exactly what I've been doing. A lot of the theories that exist about child development haven't updated themselves since the invention of technology. So, one of the things I'm seeing is the negative: children do not have the capacity to sit in direct eye-to-eye contact; they struggle to use language to explain how they're feeling. There is a term called Alexithymia, which is the inability to name something internal and to be in touch with your emotions. It's part of the emotional intelligence framework. But actually, if you are a baby who is growing up in an environment where the only time you are important is when this thing is shone towards your face, or you're being interacted with in terms of holding up this device, and this device thing is always ever-present, your ability to have what we talked about earlier in terms of that face-to-face recognition about "is this safe, is this not safe?" changes the way in which a baby conceives how the world is safe, and what safety actually means.
[17:28] Catherine Knibbs: So, this is starting to get into attachment theory. So, in my first book, I talk about "e-ttachment" and how attachment has changed very surreptitiously, to the point that children are struggling to be in connection. Children are struggling to understand reciprocity; they're struggling to understand turn-taking. Now, what we are doing is we are now labeling far more children with attention deficit disorders, such as ADHD; we will use lots of psycho-pathological phrasing around — so they've got OCD, they've got Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Now, where this has come from, is a chicken and egg process. But what I have noticed that's in the positive direction — because I don't want to always sit in the darker side of stuff — is actually, children's ability to manage pieces of information is equivalent to how televisions are now at 4K. So, what I mean by that is, so we're having a conversation at the moment. And I think there are pieces of research that say we are processing somewhere between 60 to 100 bits per second. That's what we do as human beings. When you watch a child playing on a computer game, the amount of information they can actually hold and contain cognitively, whilst playing a game and still have conversations with their peers, is absolutely outstanding. That idea of technology has been around for 27 years that we know. But when it comes to evolution, it's a slow process. And here we are, 27 years, we've had this intervention of technology which has sped up certain aspects, both the positive and the negative. And I find it so fascinating that I can be sitting with a child in my therapy office who cannot read but can play Fortnite; is able to maintain a small conversation because a lot of the children I work with have a lot of developmental trauma. So, they will be able to have a conversation whilst also looking at a screen; monitoring the heads-up display; noticing how many kills they've got; how many other players are on there; the kinds of points and XP things they've got to — it's absolutely fascinating to watch.
[19:54] Catherine Knibbs: And for me, there's something about — so what is actually happening, and how do we measure this? Again, coming back to that question you're asking brilliant questions but they are so complicated. I think we are in a space where we are changing as a species that uses this technology. And I think the only way we could ever study this is similar to when televisions first came out. And in the US, they were able to do areas that have televisions and areas that didn't. And they were able to look at developmental delays and changes. And what is coming out at the moment is, I don't know whether to call it myths. But there is a lot of research coming out suggesting that screen time — which is a totally nonsense term because I don't even know how we measure that, or what it means — there is this idea that screen time is changing development, language abilities to succeed in the world in terms of delayed gratification. And this is us trying to do comparisons to the literature that existed before the internet.
[21:02] Andra Zaharia: We definitely have a lot of work on our hands, to understand how all of this, how deep it goes. And it goes really, really deep, just like you told us. And I now understand and what I've noticed in younger generations is that they're so perceptive; they're so able to just tap into any cue, any trigger, decode so fast all of the behaviors around them. And I now realize that it's because they have to; they have to figure out constantly do this check of "Is this safe? Is this safe? Is this safe?" And they do it so much more and so much faster than we had to do it, for one reason or another. And around your idea that our phones are always present and how that changes our relationship — this is a personal example of one that it kind of took me aback when I realized why this is happening. I don't have kids, but I do have a cat, and I noticed my cat keeps sitting next to my phone when I place it near me on a couch. And that's because — and this is a cat we're talking about — my cat knows that if it sits close to that, it has higher chances for me to pay attention to him and just be present in my life. And I realized when I realized this, and it was actually someone who told me this because I hadn't made the connection by myself, honestly. When I realized this, I felt like a bad mom. I felt like a bad cat mom; am I not paying attention enough? Am I more distracted by my phone instead of paying attention to him? And how is this affecting my relationships with the other people around me — with my partner, with everyone else? It feels just so powerful. It kind of rocks you from the ground up, realizing these kinds of things in value, and how these are so immensely powerful on a global scale in our societies.
[23:09] Catherine Knibbs: Absolutely. I love the example you've got with the cat because if you want to look at behavioral psychology, that is a classic example of an animal learning. When you have that thing, or that thing is near, there's an association that it's making. Now, in my TED talk, it was quite hilarious because I am not guilt-free of any of these kinds of—I think the phrases now are "fobbing." We're forever inventing new language. So, fobbing is the same as what I call digital distraction, which is that idea of, "Am I meeting the expectations of everybody else online that I perceive might be judging me in some way, shape, or form?" Okay, so that's one of the reasons why we go on social media. Because when we're little, one of the things that we do is we look to our parents as to when they pay attention to us. So, if we're the good little girl in the corner, reading the book, and they say, "Oh, aren't you very good," pat, pat, pat on the top of your head, you learn to be a quiet child and to not be gregarious, and noticed. Well, actually, I think what is currently happening is children are learning they have to be noisier and more present than whatever is in that device. This really feels like why we're becoming so kind of dependent on this social media, and I watch with utter fascination—and it does make me smile sometimes—when you see a young person walking down the street, and in the middle of their walk between two shops, they kind of flick the head towards the window, have a quick look, and then the phone comes out, and they take a picture of themselves, and then they carry on walking. I kind of sit from a distance going, "What are we doing? What is happening to us as a species?" And it's this, "Am I good enough? Am I good enough?" So, we've got these auto-tuned voices sitting in the background constantly saying, "Am I safe? Am I good enough? Am I important?" and that drives human connection. And I think one of the things that we're also doing is becoming less empathic and connected to other people because we're constantly looking at this curated proxy setting of what other people are doing and how it feels to be another person. So, we're constantly comparing ourselves to every other human being on the planet. And that begins when we are under about five or six years of age. And that behavior is actually becoming more present in some of the adults that I'm now working with. Because going back to that 27, the 18 to 25-year cohort, are getting to the stage that you talked about—they're deleting a lot of their social media profiles because they're beginning to recognize—obviously, as the brain matures, and they become an adult—"Actually, I don't need to perform to everybody else's standards." But it is so difficult whilst you are growing up through adolescence in that particular phase, that again, we've got that developmental stage that has changed in terms of human beings.
[26:19] Catherine Knibbs: And our, if you like, sentient beings that live with us, the dogs, the cats, they are learning. There is an association between that thing, whether it's a tablet or a device. And this is one of the things that I've noticed with people, especially on Zoom meetings, if they have a cat, the cats are always present-- They walk across the keyboard, they're on the lap of somebody, you see the tail kind of go past, or somebody will, in the middle of a conversation, flick their head down to the side and go, "Sorry, it's just my dog's given me a little bit of attention." Because actually, all of us, in that capacity—mammals and human beings—all have a desire, and a need to be noticed, to be wanted, to be important.
[27:05] Andra Zaharia: This is heartbreaking to me that this constant disconnection is hurting us so much more than we realize. But it's also, I feel like, a huge motivation for the work that you do, and for us supporting the kind of work that you do. And for us talking about this more and more and more, because our biological needs, like you mentioned, they have not changed. And it's unlikely that they will change anytime in the foreseeable future; we're still going to have these needs, and denying ourselves these needs, or trying to satisfy them through superficial types of connection, through artificial types of connection that are never going to be as satisfying to us. It's just like, when you're hungry, and you just eat a lot of sugar, it's never going to be nutritious, it's never going to be nurturing to you; you're just going to want more and more and more of it.
[28:00] Catherine Knibbs: That's the criteria that people keep using behind this "dopamine hit." We are more complicated than dopamine hits and our biological drives. So, I am going to quote TA here, in terms of Transactional Analysis, we actually have a hunger drive. And that hunger drive is for connection. As you kind of mentioned there, the artificial—actually, this is going to change yet again, when we start to see many more people using the VR-type environments. I think the reason that will change is because, as you've just said there, it's our biology. This is evolution. And evolution is very slow to update and change, let's call it the operating system. So, when we start to go into that VR environment, there are going to be huge pieces of communication information that we're missing. So, I think the best way to reference this is—I was just talking to you just before we started—about Mark Zuckerberg and Lex Friedman have just done a podcast episode where they both went into the VR environment. And whilst anybody who goes and looks at the avatars that they've got within that environment, yes, they are photorealistic, but they are missing the element of empathy, connection, compassion, and what we actually do as a human being which is read at a what's known as a neuroceptive level. We read biologically whether a person is safe. That information is conveyed by body language, wrinkles and crinkles on the face. It would be the tempo of the conversation-- I'm sure we've all had this experience in the real world where you want to say something to somebody, and your mouth opens, and you get ready to say what you want to say because you're so excited, or you want to argue with somebody. Those moments are missing in a lot of the 2D, the web 2.0 scenarios. Never mind about what's going to happen with the web 3.0 and this kind of immersive technology because the real-world presence cannot ever be replicated in a technological environment. And therefore, my worries, concerns, and interests are going to be around, "So what is going to happen to us as a biological being when we are in a non-biological setting? How is that going to change what we encounter, how we react and respond to somebody? And how is that going to change absolute presence between people?"
[30:42] Andra Zaharia: That is a heavy question. Well, a loaded question. And, I think, that having these questions in the back of our mind, and having what you just mentioned here, these topics, or this overarching topic of cybertrauma, in the back of our minds, can be so helpful. It can be a guiding light through our experience; it creates an opportunity for us to just carve out a space within ourselves where we can reflect on our actions, on how we feel, and create that internal kind of feedback loop that helps us like, "Am I acting on my values? Is this important to me? Is this serving me? Is this connecting me to other people? Or is this toxic? Is this too much? Is this overwhelming?" Just checking in with ourselves, which is, again, something that perhaps, for instance, I had to learn this mechanism, and I learned it through therapy because no one taught me this; my parents don't have this. I've seen what effect it had on them not to have this internal feedback mechanism. And again, having guides such as yourself, to help us acquire all these elements, we don't have to become expert practitioners in this; we just need a couple of things that can really make a difference for us. And what I wanted to ask on this because you've taken on such a big mission, such a big topic, what led you to focus your work and your research in this area? Was it a particular experience? Was there an inflection point? How did you end up studying and talking about cybertrauma, which is something so specific, so important, and so new, honestly, to almost everyone?
[32:32] Catherine Knibbs: The reason I'm a psychotherapist didn't actually occur to me till I was about six years into my training, actually. And it was when we were doing the studies on trauma. And what was interesting is, I am a hugely curious person; I want to know why about everything. And there was a conversation that started about trauma, empathy, and methylation of DNA. So, we'd really gone to the ends of the earth, so to speak, about trauma, and I wasn't getting the answers that I wanted. Now, at that point, we were talking about PTSD and how things can be passed down through generations through something called epigenetics, which I'll not get into here. But during that process, I had a huge "aha" moment. So, my father was a radiographer in the armed forces. And then he went into the prison service. And when he was working in the hospitals in the prison service, we happened to live at the time near one of the what they call "category A" prisons. So, many of the people that you will hear about that carry out the most heinous crimes, some of them were situated in this prison, and my father had to work with a number of people in some of the psychiatric prisons as well. And I would sit asking questions, "But why would somebody do that? And why would that happen? And why would that happen?" Well, lo and behold, as with everybody with a kind of a dysfunctional background, who tends to go into therapeutic services, I decided I was gonna go off into the army, and off I went, and became very logical, systemic thinking, and put to one side the "why, why, why" of people, and I wanted to know the "why, why, why" of things, which is where my interest in computing and technology and so on came from.
[34:18] Catherine Knibbs: And then, after a messy divorce with two children, I went back into the realm of counseling and psychotherapy and psychology. And that's what I was studying. I wanted to know how brains worked, why people did what they did, and at the time was supplementing my income to train as a therapist by going and working in some secondary schools and talking to the children there. Now, my children were 13 and 15 at this point, where actually, I probably started when they were about 10 and 12. And my eldest came home from school, and this is in the old days, I'm gonna take people back to the days of Bluetooth when it first began. So, this was a kind of flip phone with Bluetooth, and children would congregate around each other and share files with each other via Bluetooth. And my eldest son came home with something that had happened that day in the yard, and a number of boys were watching a video of somebody who... So, I'll give a caveat now that I'm going to talk about something quite difficult. They were actually watching the beheading of a journalist. I asked my son, did he watch the video. And he said, "No, I felt sick at the sound." And I kind of, as you do as a parent, was like, "Oh my God, this is disgusting!" And I wanted to do something about it. And then, kind of had this moment where I was like, "Hang on a minute. This is the world we live in. It's not always fantastic. You do see things, car crashes, people being knocked over and ambulances turning up; people who have overdosed on drugs. You tend to see that kind of thing quite prevalent in the western societies, maybe uptown, in the town center, somewhere like that. But you wouldn't necessarily see this level of distressing material unless you lived in a country, or unless you were part of, perhaps, maybe the armed forces." And I started to ask questions about, "So, who got the video. How did that get shared around? What did the boys do? Who did they speak to? How did they manage that?"
[36:21] Catherine Knibbs: And then, suddenly, whilst I was teaching within the schools around sex education, a conversation came up about a video that was circulating at the time. So, this was around 2011-2012, if I remember rightly, and it was what they colloquially call a snuff movie. It was the murder of a gentleman that had taken place by two young men in Romania. And they'd committed 20 separate murders and filmed all of them. And this video was circulating amongst young people. When I was in this particular classroom setting, I was having conversations with the young people saying, "Well, what did you do? How did that affect you?" I was saying to these young people, "So, what happens when you've watched something like that?" And they would say, "Oh, it made me feel sick. I couldn't get to sleep. I kept seeing the images." And I thought, "This is exactly what type of trauma is," and actually, that's where the word 'Cybertrauma' was first-- it's not my word; somebody did use it before me, but I kind of came away with this. That is not an everyday thing. That is not something that we would be able to, I don't know, have a conversation with our child about. For example, if I was walking with my children uptown and there was a homeless person, I might say, "That's incredibly sad. Maybe that person got kicked out of their home, or maybe they lost all of their money." You can kind of empathize with the reality of something you would likely happen upon. And yet, because we now live in a world that's borderless, children can now see other cultures, they can see other countries' processes around law and punishment. And of course, you can see the darker side of young people.
[38:14] Catherine Knibbs: Now, there were, and I won't name them on here, there were, and they are still in existence, sites dedicated to this particular genre of material. And those tend to be used as the rite of passage for a lot of adolescents. So, they will say, "Oh, if you watch X video, then you can be in our gang. Or if you can't handle this, you can't be in our gang." And that has kind of spread to a space where young people are coming into my therapy office. And this is really why I'm so interested in it. Young people are in my office now, on generic social media platforms, where they actually see crimes, punishments, sexual content, animal abuse, and it is becoming so prevalent, that the difficulty is, the content moderators, the systems that are in place, are not going to be able to remove this material. Now, what I can tell you from the trauma studies is that if you witness these kinds of events, as a young person, it can have adverse impacts for life, depending upon the person, the kind of support they get, when it happens, et cetera. So, that's my interest in it. But that's why I want people to understand what the impact of this is. Because as a grown-up, so to speak, I could probably manage watching something and then having a conversation with somebody and being able to, I don't know, maybe therapeutically say, "Oh my goodness, I couldn't sleep. Here are the symptoms. It presents like PTSD." But what does a young person do? What does a seven-year-old do? What does a 12-year-old do? What does a 15-year-old do? And that's really where my interest and passion around this is.
[40:00] Andra Zaharia: Thank you for taking us through all of these experiences. I cannot imagine how difficult it is to lead someone through this process. And when you mentioned content moderation, my brain went to an article that I read about the experience of the humans who do manual content moderation for platforms like Facebook, who see, it's their job to look at all these horrible, horrible things, day in and day out. I cannot even imagine how traumatic and just disconcerting everything can be for them to be exposed to this constantly. I would love to have another conversation about this, I feel like there are so many topics, and you have such deep knowledge and understanding and wonderful ability to talk about the things with compassion and create the safe space around this conversation. And I'd love to keep that going. However, I did want to leave people with something that they can do to help themselves and others. So, what would be some mechanisms now that they can, they have something to help them to recognize when they're experiencing these kinds of things? But what can they do about it? You mentioned that, as adults, we have this option of going to therapy, of talking amongst ourselves, of like, "Hey, I need to talk this out with someone. I need to offload this, help me out." What are some other tactics that people can use to hold themselves in and hopefully help their children as well?
[41:37] Catherine Knibbs: I'm going to use some glib sentences, but this is actually what I'm doing at the moment. So, I've got a keynote that I'm doing next week around this, in terms of supporting people like moderators, and so on. There are a few glib sentences. So, "A problem shared is a problem halved." And by that, one of the things that we know from trauma research is that if you talk to somebody about your experience—you don't have to disclose what you saw—you can actually be in a place. So, what the research shows is if there is one person who can support you through your post-event conversation, that can sometimes be enough to reduce the impact, for example. So, I might say, "Oh, my God, I've had the worst day at work today. Oh, there was just like 15 cases, and it was just so terrible." Well, there I am; I'm talking about how difficult it was for me to be in work, listening to other people's stories. Now, I'm very lucky; I have to have supervision as a psychotherapist. So, that's the space I get to decompress. What we tend to do as human beings, is come home and do that with somebody, anyway. So, what you need, really, is a person you can decompress with, and you do not need to share—and this is one of the things that surprises people about trauma therapy: you don't need to discuss the trauma event; you can talk about the feelings that surrounded the event, you can talk about how you felt after the event, you could talk about before the event—that's one of the things that's most helpful. And because we are talking empathy and compassion, the person you speak to has to be—as Brene Brown calls it—not a person who doesn't say, "Well, at least..." What you actually need is somebody to meet you where you are, and say, "That sounds terrible." What you're looking for is empathy. What you're looking for is compassion. You're not asking a person to be emotionally empathic with you; you don't want them to feel your emotions, you want them to cognitively understand and to imagine, "Oh, my goodness, that must have been terrible for you." And for you to be able to do that for other people.
[43:42] Catherine Knibbs: So, as parents, we want to fix our child's pain, for sure. And one of the things that we tend to do is rush in and say, "Oh, well, what I would do is..." and "What I think..." So, really, hold your own opinions when you're being the person, and to recognize the distress, to convey and connect how difficult that must be for the other person. So they feel felt and feel heard, and validate their feelings. And this is really important. So, if a child has seen something, and they say, "I don't know, I watched Scooby Doo today, and it was terrifying." As parents, what we tend to do is, "Oh, don't be silly. It's only a cartoon." Actually, for that child, that is not a cartoon; that is something scary. And it's hard to do that as parents because we want to minimize and make it go away. And actually, what children need, in terms of that empathy, that connection, that compassion, and that ability to resonate is to be heard and to feel felt. And the other glib sentence that's coming in is, "Self-care is not selfish." So, whatever you need to do for you, and there are lots and lots of interventions that are out there at the moment and people will say things like, "Well, just have a bath," and they tend to start with "just." So, "just have a bath," "just go for a walk," "just breathe." Actually, find what works for you. And sometimes—I'm going to talk as a therapist here—sometimes those solutions are not always the healthiest. Like we talked about sugar earlier, sometimes they're not the healthiest. But in the moment, it helps you manage until you can find a person to work it through. So, if it's a bag of sweets, or a piece of cake, or you sit on the couch and Netflix, or you go to bed and have a cry and go to sleep, whatever it is, for some people, they know how to recognize their own nervous system dysregulation, other people do not. And for me, I will sometimes defer to things that probably don't look the healthiest on paper. And it might be—I don't know—a cream scone. Or I might go for a walk. If I haven't recognized the trauma in that moment, I'm going to need to do whatever suits me and my nervous system. And then later on, I'll be like, "Ah, that's why I was eating the scone." Then I get to take that to supervision. So, we need to not be hard on ourselves as well.
[46:17] Andra Zaharia: It does start with that, doesn't it? Because if we can do this for ourselves, then we learn how to do it for others because we know how it feels. And we get to feel the impact, the positive effect of that. Just being able to breathe easy, just being able to let ourselves off the hook, and not expect ourselves to power through anything, which is, I feel, has been one of the most harmful examples that I've had in my life: to power through, like, "You can do this. This is nothing. This is not important." Being dismissive of how it can feel for certain personnel, just like we said, just acknowledging that it is all different. And yes, if we do have some energy that we can share with others, that is wonderful. If we're not in a place to help, that's okay, too. And yeah, just giving ourselves a little kindness.
[47:12] Catherine Knibbs: Yeah, so I have a sentence that I will share with a friend where I send a text message that says, "Bring sandwiches," and it's not "bring me sandwiches." So, it's taken from a Brene Brown video where she talks about sympathy and empathy. And one of the things I say is, if I'm in a hole, I don't want you to get me out of the hole; I'm in the hole for a reason. And that hole might be that I'm having a bit of a misery party. But also, what I really need is somebody to get in the hole with me, bring sandwiches, and just listen. I don't need them to fix it; I need to be heard. And that's such a difficult thing. And going all the way back to this is what we, I want to say, ought to learn as children. But sadly, this is the thing that isn't conveyed in parenting, and schools. And so, there is a push to have so many different interventions in schools with little people. And we talk about social and emotional learning; actually, what we really need is to be seen, to be soothed, to be safe, and to be secure, and that's quoting Dan Siegel. Those are the four elements that help us manage our own internal distress because that occurs through co-regulation, somebody helping us feel that we are safe, somebody helping us feel that we are important, meeting those needs that I talked about earlier. And then we can learn how to do that for ourselves. And it's a little bit like riding a bike: if we don't have the stabilizers on to begin with, we can't learn how to ride a two-wheeled bike.
[48:46] Andra Zaharia: This was so generous of you to not only help us dive into this topic and understand and get the tools to see our own experiences, to look at our own experiences. But again, with a softness, with compassion, with some kindness for ourselves, and for what we know, for what we don't know, for what we're going through. Thank you so much; this conversation with you has been such a gift. And I do hope we get to do it again. And up until then, I'm going to include links to the books that you've written and your TED talk. And I do encourage people to follow you on LinkedIn. If this is something that you resonate with, and you're listening, you can find Catherine on LinkedIn; this is how I found you. And I feel so lucky to have had a chance not just to meet you, but to have this conversation. And I'm so excited to continue to support your incredibly important work and see how people just be better to themselves and to others as well.
[49:50] Catherine Knibbs: Oh, well, thank you. I am slightly blushing here, and I'm glad it's audio because when people do this, I kind of just want to disappear off the screen. But thank you so much, Andra. For me, this was exciting to have this conversation. And again, I'm now at a position where, as we end this call, I'm invigorated to continue doing what I'm doing because it's really important—and for you to ask the questions that you've asked has highlighted just how important this is for all of us, and how we're all in it together.
[50:21] Andra Zaharia: We truly are. Thank you again!