Collage of images showing people exposed to harmful images.
Protecting the Protectors

“I’m an analyst, I’m in my twenties and I work on sexual violence material each day to try to prevent violence like this happening. I believe in making the world a better place and that through my work, I can make a difference. When I come into work each day, I read through cases of sexual violence that happened the day before and enter each case onto a database. I also analyse some case material in detail. I like going out with my partner and my friends to pubs and nightclubs but I find it hard to relax, looking about the club and noticing vulnerable “victims” and potential offenders. I’ve now stopped going. When I’ve been out of the house, as soon as I’m back, I lock the door, and I can’t leave windows open at night when I go to sleep. I like to go out jogging but if I’ve noticed that I move away from the entrances to alleyways and from parked cars in case someone tries to grab me. I have had flashbacks to cases I have worked on when I’m in similar situations to those that the victims were in at the time the crime happened. I love my job but it’s affecting how I see the world and how I behave”.

More than 20 years ago, that was me. I was working on sexual violence occurring in the physical world but since that time the virtual world has expanded exponentially, and many analysts nowadays work with material depicting violence that’s been posted online (e.g., footage of genocide, sexual violence). Like I was, they are working with the details of atrocities perpetrated against others and trying to take down such content, identify the perpetrators, and safeguard victims. It’s essential work but it can take its toll and a vital question therefore is how can exposure like this have a harmful effect and what can we do to protect those who are engaged in it?

Published in Communications Psychology, is our model which proposes several mechanisms through which exposure to disturbing content (on- or offline) can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, as a crime analyst working on sexually-violent material, I soon learned that stranger rape could occur in a whole range of different contexts (e.g., parks, nightclubs, on public transport, in your home), to people of all genders, ages and ethnicities, and because I had read the details of the crimes, I also knew that victims are not responsible for the crimes perpetrated against them – they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. This means that you can’t control whether you become the victim of sexual violence or not. Dr Duran and I propose that this can lead to a sense of pervasive and current threat which is characteristic of other models of PTSD such as that of Ehlers and Clark (2000), a model that we extend in our paper.

Our interviews with analysts working with disturbing material posted or shared online have revealed similar experiences – parents who at work are exposed to the details of child sexual abuse, fear their child will be victimised by parents of school friends or by someone in a position of authority. Some cope by limiting their children’s unsupervised contact with others. People working with other violent extreme content report developing a sense of cynicism and distrust regarding other people. They feel isolated, angry and depressed. They curtail their social activities to avoid places or people that remind them of the material encountered at work (e.g., going out or dating). The problem with this type of avoidance behaviour, much like my eventual avoidance of nightclubs and pubs, is that it prevents you learning that you can go to such places (or engage in behaviours) and nothing bad happens.

We also propose that the cognitive strategies and the behaviours engaged in when exposed to disturbing material at work can have an impact. Exposure to disturbing material can be via visual or auditory means, such as photographs or oral testimonies respectively, or both combined such as with video footage with sound. We hypothesise that exposure through both modalities will be more harmful. If research demonstrates this to be the case, reviewing material through one modality only or limiting the vividness of the exposure would help. Similarly, we propose that repeated or lengthy exposure will be harmful; therefore, limiting the number of times an analyst must view the same material or their time exposed to it could help.

By documenting the different mechanisms through which we believe exposure to disturbing material at work can cause harm, we are laying the groundwork for future research that tests our propositions with the goal of identifying effective interventions for the workplace. We have started this research with analysts working with crimes in the physical world but there is still much to do. Dr Duran and I are, therefore, really excited to announce that we will shortly be advertising a PhD studentship opportunity to explore this important topic with personnel working on violent extremist material online. This is one of the new PhD studentships that are part of the new ESRC Centre for National Training and Research Excellence in Understanding Behaviour (CENTRE-UB). Follow us on X to hear about other studentships coming soon: @Centre_ub

CENTRE-UB is a new centre for doctoral training plus hosted by the University of Birmingham and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of a larger investment in a national capability in behavioural research. From October 2024, we will be training three cohorts of PhD students, as well as hosting postdoctoral research fellows, and offering national continuing professional development in behavioural research. For enquiries about CENTRE-UB, please email

A longer version of this article appears in Communications Psychology under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.