Protecting the Protector: How Mindfulness Can Help Shield Trust & Safety Teams from the Harmful Effects of Online Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious Trauma and the Online Guardian

Vicarious trauma is a by-product of engaging in work that includes ongoing exposure to distressing images, sights and sounds as well as exposure to personal stories of trauma. Web-based professionals whose job it is to “protect” online communities from inappropriate material are regularly subjected to obscene, toxic, and exceptionally disturbing pictures, videos, online postings, distressing virtual conversations, and cyberspace crimes. Research suggests that repeated vicarious exposure to traumatic material creates a vulnerability for developing vicarious trauma or some form of secondary traumatic stress. This “vulnerability” may have deleterious effects upon the well-being of the online guardian’s personal and emotional life as well as their ability to deliver quality services to their clients over time. The following is a list of stressors often encountered by online trust and safety teams:

Stressors Unique to the Role of Online Guardian

  • Repeated exposure to emotionally distressing online content
  • Pressure to address a high number of cases due to the guardian’s unique skillset and the number of cases identified for investigation
  • Lack of understanding and support of the guardian’s work by the larger organization, and others, due to the novelty of the role
  • Inability to control the actions of online rule-violators and perpetrators
  • The constantly changing online landscape
  • The unusual time demands of online work


How Mindfulness Can Help. Mindfulness is a meditative practice that involves training one’s ability to pay attention to what is happening in the moment without reacting to elaborate mental stories about the experience and without reacting to distressing thoughts or emotions that may be present; instead, the experience is accepted without judgment or avoidance (Baer, Smith, Hopkins et al., 2006; Carmody, 2009; Dimidjian & Linehan, 2003). Similarly, mindfulness is associated with improvements in concentration and awareness of thoughts and feelings as transient mental and physical events rather than factual representations of reality that demand a response (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009; Garland, Gaylord, & Park, 2009; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002). In this way, online guardians trained in mindfulness can learn to witness traumatic material from a more distanced and less personal perspective that, overtime, allows for more reflective, intentional action and less impulsive “automatic” reactivity to the online traumatic material.

Practical Tools for Trust & Safety Staff

Enhancing Mindful Self-Awareness. As a specialist in vicarious trauma prevention and mindfulness coach, I have found that one of the first steps of preventing vicarious trauma in trust and safety teams is to help them begin to understand how they are relating to the traumatic imagery. The supportive team meetings I’ve facilitated and the individual supervision sessions with caring team leads have provided a safe space for team members to identify and reflect upon their automatic cognitive and emotional responses to witnessing traumatic imagery.
I’ve also found that offering team members opportunities to practice mindful sitting meditations designed to promote greater awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations can uncover unhelpful thoughts that create undue stress and impede work performance such as the stream of distressing thoughts that can occur (for some) when investigating a video containing scenes of child abuse: “If this could happen to this child…this could happen to my child…What if it does happen?” “Is my child in danger?”

Practicing Dual-Concentration. Being skilled at refocusing a significant part of one’s attention away from distressing images and onto a neutral point of focus can help to promote resilience and a greater sense of ease when trust and safety team members review cases involving traumatic imagery. This is called practicing “dual concentration.” Dual concentration is a mindfulness technique that a team member can practice simply by caressing a polished stone or squeezing a stress ball while working with a traumatic image. I suggest to team members that they apply what I call the “60:40 rule” to the situation where 60% of their focus is dedicated to examining the distressing image and 40% is dedicated to exploring the neutral or pleasurable object.

These are just two of the many tools and techniques I have adapted and designed to help trust and safety teams reduce work-related stress and prevent online vicarious trauma. If you are interested in learning more about how mindfulness and related techniques may help prevent vicarious trauma in your team, you may contact Tony via e-mail @ or by telephone, (323) 315-2598.

Written by Tony Madril Therapy & Training, LCSW, PC

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