Every day we are bombarded by the media with atrocious images from Syria. Images of bodies lying on the middle of the streets, terrified children shaking at the corner of the room, people screaming for help and blood spatter on the walls have become part of our daily exposure. Images of human suffrage are not new. Since the technological ability became available, viewers can observe the tragedies and the traumata almost instantly. We perceive the explicit and intensive media reportage at every war, terrorists attack, earthquake, flood, tsunami, revolutions and more. The thirst for knowledge, empathy, worry, compassion, curiosity and even a drop of voyeurism causes us to be glued to the flood of devastating, painful details and images. But, what are the consequences?
The association between the exposure to trauma due to media coverage and the psychological consequences has been studied for a while now. It has been found that watching media coverage of terrorist attacks substantially raises stress (Schuster et al., 2001), anxiety (Sloan, 2000) and exacerbates depression and PTSD (Ahern et al., 2004). Dreams can change and have specific references to characters, objects, or locations of the traumatic event. The dreams can contain threatening scenarios and unpleasant emotions (Propper et al., 2001). The exposure to the atrocities on TV also influences children. Children, who were exposed to media coverage of September 11th, started displaying difficulty sleeping, being irritable, grouchy, aggressive, confused, were easily upset and demonstrated fear of separation from their parents (Schlenger et al., 2002).
Media exposure to the horrendous details of terrorist attack is associated with the development of symptoms similar to those of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Keinan, Sadeh,& Rosen, 2003). Media exposure of the Oklahoma City Bombing resulted in posttraumatic stress symptoms in adolescents, children and teachers, who did not have direct contact with the bombing or its victims (Pfefferbaum et al, 2002; Maynard, Meierhooefer, & Miller, 2000). Excessive exposure to the media coverage of a traumatic event may also interfere with the recovery process after an event. Media coverage may also trigger sights, feelings, smells and thoughts from past traumata. In essence media coverage indirectly traumatizes the viewer by exposing the viewer to human suffrage, horrendous sights and atrocities. PTSD symptoms correlate positively with the level of media exposure even more than indirect interpersonal exposure, such as a member of the family, who was killed or injured in a terrorist attack (Pfeferbaum et al., 2000).
Contradictory research results assert that exposure to terrorist attacks by only watching television is not associated with higher frequency of PTSD (Gierger et al., 2005). Some veterans admitted to treatment after 9/11 showed an improvement in PTSD symptoms after exposure to the media reportage (Rosenheck & Fontana, 2003). The authors explain this differentiation by referring to the communal of feelings with the rest of the country. The fact that everyone was experiencing the same traumatic event increased feelings such as national unity, pride and normalized PTSD symptoms. The normalization of PTSD symptoms by the media increased the level of coping abilities of the veterans.
Media is our main source of information but it also provides a sense of connection to others and the world. In difficult times, media can also be a source of hope and provide a sense of comfort. An excessive exposure to anything is never recommended as it will always have an impact on the manner in which we think, feel and behave. It has been proven that indirect exposure to trauma can have for some people devastating consequences. As media coverage becomes more accessible, it does not seem realistic to think that the potential negative consequences will halt the media from airing the explicit devastating contents. It is up to the viewer to decide and select the level and the contents of media exposure. As adults we should be able to find a balance and a certain level of exposure that is not daunting and in which we still feel comfortable and in control. But children do not have that luxury. It is the responsibility of the parents to determine the content and the extent of exposure of a child to traumatic contents in the media. Parents should always be present, explain misunderstanding and answers questions that were raised by the child. Find out what the child actually understood, worries and concerns which the child may have and reassure them of their safety.
Ahern, J., Galea, S., Resnick, H., & Vlahov, D. (2004). Television images and probable PTSD after September 11: the role of background characteristics, events exposure and pre-event panic. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 192, 3, 217-226.
Gierger. T. A., Waldrep, D. A., Lovasz, M. M., & Ursano, R. J. (2005). Follow -up of Pentagon employees two years after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Psychiatric Services, 56, 1374-1378.
Keinan, G., Sadeh, A. & Rosen, S. (2003), Attitudes and reactions to media coverage of terrorist acts. Journal of Community Psychology, 31, 149–165.
Maynard, B.T., Meierhoefer, B., & Miller, P. D. (2000). Posttraumatic stress two years after the Oklahoma City bombing in youths geographically distant from the explosion. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes. 63 ,4, 358-370.
Pfefferbaum B. S., Thomas W., McDonald, N. B., Brandt, E. N. Jr., Rainwater, S. M., Maynard, B. T., Meierhoefer, B. & Miller, P. D. (2000). Posttraumatic stress two years after the Oklahoma City bombing in youths geographically distant from the explosion. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes. 63,4, 358-370.
Propper,R. E., Stickgold, R. Keeley,R, & Christman, S. D. (2001). Is Television Traumatic? Dreams, Stress, and Media Exposure in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001. Psychological Science, 18, 4, 334-340.
Rosenheck, R. A., & Fontana, A. (2003). Post 9/11 admission symptoms and treatment response among veterans with PTSD. Psychiatric Services, 54, 1610-1617.
Schuster, M.A., Stein, B.D., Jaycox, L.H., Collins, R.L., Marshall, G.N., Elliott, M.N., et al. (2001). A National Survey of stress reactions after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. New England Journal Medicine, 345, 1507-1512.
Schlenger, W. E., Caddell, J. M., Ebert, L., Jordan, B. K.,Rourke, K. M., Wilson, D. (2002). Psychological reactions to terrorist attacks: Findings from the National Study of Americans’ Reactions to September 11. Journal of the American Medical Association, 288, 5, 581-588.
Sloan, M. (2000). Response to media coverage of terrorism. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 44, 508-522.