A 33-year-old army veteran named Ronnie McNutt gruesomely killed himself in a Facebook Live video on August 31, 2020. Soon after, memes and jump cuts to his suicide were floating around social media sites like TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram. From there, reaction videos between friends and siblings began trending. Unfortunately, this is not the first time an online suicide began trending and turned into a meme. This subculture of macabre shock humor not only desensitizes kids to violence, but it can also cause copycat behaviors and serious trauma symptoms.
How Kids Fall Victim to Traumatizing Shock Humor
The extremely popular TikTok has a customized feed called the “For You” page. The For You page shares trending videos that may be relevant to the user’s view history with a few random videos added in for variety. This is the reason disturbing videos may appear out of nowhere on a user’s page.
Users often save and forward the most gruesome content to their friends on a variety of social media platforms. That means that, despite being reported and removed by moderators, the images and videos live on and on. Users even troll each other by hiding a gruesome clip in the middle of a seemingly unrelated video for the GOTCHA effect. Whether your kids are on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook, they may have a difficult time avoiding gruesome content.
Why do kids troll with gruesome videos?
Kids are particularly susceptible to videos that make them feel interested, curious, and shocked. The more shocking the video, the more social cred kids get which helps them fit in, gain popularity, and seem cool and edgy.
Because processing this type of content is horrifying, kids often morph their uncomfortable feelings into humor as a way of coping. The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, called the tendency for people to have an opposite emotional reaction than expected, reaction formation.
Modeling is defined in psychology as a type of learning that results from watching behavior and replicating it. Kids are particularly wired for learning through modeling because it helps them grasp useful life strategies such as social cues and dealing with emotions. Seeing peers laughing at these videos or attempting to make funny reactions, makes this type of behavior seem okay and leads them to abandon their initial reaction of revulsion. As a result, the cycle of sharing gruesome videos is repeated.
An example of this is seen in a popular response video created by Jorobe on TikTok. This video highlights a clip between a girl sharing the McNutt video with another girl. The victim gets wide-eyed, leans away from the phone, looks at the camera and then back at the girl who is showing the video, lets out a nervous chuckle, then covers her face. Her raw response shows shock, revulsion, and an uncomfortable attempt to process what she has seen. As she struggles to make sense of her distress, the other girl laughs. She then laughs in response. The transformation from revulsion to humor is, all by itself, the joke.
Most adults tend to be upset at this kind of “gotcha” humor, but kids tend to love it. Without life experience, they do not yet have the empathy skills to pull back before somebody gets hurt. Kids simply get carried away. Powerful and even stressful emotions can release the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which can be interpreted as pleasurable to immature brains.
Viewing Violence Can Cause Psychological Stress: The Impacts on the Mind and Body
Some videos may cause extreme stress and may even be traumatizing for children. In an article published in 2017 by McFadden, it is noted that the brain areas that play a role in complex thought and emotion—the prefrontal cortex and amygdala—are affected by stress. When we are exposed to a threat, our amygdala (commonly called the smoke detector in our brain) determines whether we need to go in crisis mode or problem-solving mode. If we go in crisis mode, the signal is directed to our brain stem so we can fight, flee, freeze, or fold. If we go into problem-solving mode, the signal is directed to our prefrontal cortex to calmly work the problem out.
McFadden found that, with prolonged stress, the brain cells in the prefrontal cortex will begin to deteriorate, while the amygdala will begin to strengthen. This impact then affects other parts of the brain—and therefore, one’s headspace—like a domino effect.
If a person is exposed to traumatic or threatening material often, the crisis pathway overdevelops and the subject panics too easily. They can also lose their problem-solving abilities when stressed.
Further, trauma memories encode in the brain differently than factual memories. Unlike factual memories where we can retrieve the information at will, trauma memories may intrusively come back into our awareness uninvited. In extreme cases, these memories can be very upsetting – like a flashback of the originally traumatizing event. Psychologists recognize these behaviors as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by serious sleep problems, social isolation, anxiety, and mood disorders.
Desensitization in psychology is explained as a decline in emotional response due to repeated exposure. This could be from something as simple as a joke becoming less and less funny when it is heard many times to something as serious as becoming more and more emotionally numb towards upsetting events. For example, d of psychological research has demonstrated that violent video games can desensitize children to violence due to frequent exposure to battery, weapons, blood, and death or murder. Similarly, exposure to videos of real-life gore and violence can cause desensitization and lack of empathy.
How to Protect Your Child
When shock videos are trending, it’s best to stay off social media apps until the trend dies down. For young children, your best resource for blocking, filtering, and management is the GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit. With this resource guide, we offer links to the best parental controls, safety centers, and third-party tools and apps to help you protect your family.
For school-age kids, tech tools are simply not enough. GKIS also offers a free digital contract called our Family Agreement. With this powerful tool, you can set rules and regulations, teach important problem-solving skills, and discuss family values. An informed sensible parent-child alliance pays off for years to come. Our Connected Family Course complements the agreement with 10 steps for best-learning and safety.
Finally, we created a tool for tweens and teens that encourages more independence and accountability: our GKIS Social Media Readiness Course. Like driver’s training but for the internet, this course offers 10 lessons for your kid to work through with matching mastery quizzes at the end of each lesson. Not only does this course teach the risks of digital injury and how to avoid it, but it also offers Dr. Tracy Bennett’s hand-picked, outcome-based psychology wellness tools to help with resilience and mental health. We cannot keep them away from screens entirely, so it’s important that we offer them tools to avoid trauma.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
 Steinbuch, Y. (2020, September 08). Army veteran Ronnie McNutt commits suicide in Facebook livestream. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2020/09/08/army-veteran-kills-himself-in-facebook-livestream/
 McFadden, J. (2017). Treatment of developmental stress disorder: Mind, body and brain—Analysis and pharmacology coupled. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 62(5), 744–755. https://doi-org.summit.csuci.edu/10.1111/1468-5922.12361
 Krahé, B., Möller, I., Huesmann, L. R., Kirwil, L., Felber, J., & Berger, A. (2011). Desensitization to media violence: Links with habitual media violence exposure, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 630–646. https://doi-org.summit.csuci.edu/10.1037/a0021711