'I woke in a cold sweat after visiting dark side of the web'
If grossly offensive online images are a nightmare for adults, surely children are affected too, writes Claire Mc Cormack
The dark side of the web has never held any allure for me. It meant I was something of an innocent when, as part of my research, I began to trawl through some harmful content sites. Hours later, I woke up in a cold sweat after a series of nightmares.
I was having flashbacks - possible symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I had entered an online world that I'd never experienced before and my psyche didn't like it.
With the touch of a few buttons I was able to access pages and pages of grossly offensive websites, blogs, photographs and videos.
They depicted self-harm, pornography, animal torture and even human decapitation. Some extremely grotesque images are still popping into my mind as I write.
From photos of bloody human heads thrown on the ground after execution to nauseating gun-shot wounds, to self-harm sites exhibiting images of real people with cuts and scratches on their arms - it was very difficult to watch - while clamping my hands over my eyes.
That children can come so easily in contact with these images is a grave affront to basic humanity.
I got to the stage where I couldn't bare to look anymore, I completed my notes and shut down my computer. But the graphic images had become imprinted on my mind and I found it hard to fall asleep.
Insomnia isn't something I usually experience, but that night I woke up three times after some intense nightmares - including one where I thought someone was trying to break into my home. I don't remember all the details, but I do remember feeling scared, vulnerable and anxious and, in my opinion, my restless night was undoubtedly linked to viewing lurid material online, a few hours before.
Although I've seen lots of crime, horror and gangster movies full of violent, gory scenes, looking at "real-life" images had a stronger impact on me - and I'm 28-years-old.
For most young people online technologies are a part of their everyday lives and a popular and widespread means of retrieving information.
Last week the UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reported that: "More than one in 10 children aged 12 or 13 say they have made a sexually explicit video or been part of one, a study has found".
Almost one in 10 (9pc) said they were worried that they had become addicted to pornography. A further one in five children (18pc) said they had seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them.
In the context of eating disorders, Bodywhys - the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, has for some time expressed concern in relation to legal websites advocating anorexic or bulimic behaviours.
Previous studies show that while some sites warn users about distressing material, they also state disclaimers about not being responsible for the site's effects.
Jacinta Hastings, CEO of Bodywhys said: "It is important to point out that while these sites are not illegal, the content and purpose impact negatively on users' health - mental and physical."
Bodywhys recommends that such sites be recognised as having "a serious negative impact on users" and be monitored accordingly.
The emergence of cyber technology has transformed how we communicate and live our lives. It provides us with an irreplaceable tool and a wealth of instant information but, in the words of Newton Lee, award-winning computer scientist and author: "As the world is increasingly interconnected, everyone shares the responsibility of securing cyberspace."
Almost 24 hours after being exposed to a darker side of the internet, I slept soundly. But my cyber senses are now firmly awake.