April 25, 2019 / 9:43 PM / a month ago

News coverage of violent events may contribute to 'cycle of distress'

(Reuters Health) - In the wake of violent events like mass shootings or natural disasters, people who watch the most media coverage of the story are more likely to show post-traumatic stress symptoms months later, a small U.S. study suggests.

After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, researchers repeatedly surveyed more than 4,000 U.S. adults who hadn’t been involved in the events.

“We found that individuals who consumed more bombing-related media in the aftermath of the bombings were more likely to exhibit posttraumatic stress symptoms and fear of future negative events over time - and they were then more likely to consume more media in the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida three years later,” said senior study author Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California, Irvine.

“And, the more individuals consumed media in the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, the more distress they reported in response to that mass violence event,” Silver said by email. “Trauma-related media exposure perpetuates a cycle of increased distress and media use over time.”

Some previous research suggests that people are drawn to wall-to-wall news coverage of traumatic events as a way to ease their apprehension and cope with stress, the study team notes.

But the current study, published in Science Advances,suggests this can backfire.

Researchers found that repeated exposure to explicit violent content may exacerbate fear about future traumatic events, which in turn fuels more consumption of media coverage about the next bombing or shooting.

People are particularly vulnerable to this cycle of distress when they have personally experienced violence or when they have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, the study team notes.

To understand the connection between stress and being drawn to media coverage of tragedies, researchers surveyed participants four times: shortly after the marathon bombing and nightclub shooting happened; six months later, and after one and three years.

Two years after the Boston bombing, people who had previously displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress were more apt to worry about the potential for tragedy to strike again. And this worry was associated with tuning in to more media coverage and more symptoms of stress after the Pulse shooting.

It may be hard to do, but some people really may need to turn off the news, said Ziming Xuan of the Boston University School of Public Health.

“We do not know how much is too much, but if one feels not comfortable already, it is wise to refrain from further exposure and to speak to someone who can help,” Xuan, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“This is perhaps more important for children and young adults who are increasingly exposed to social media, and also for those who experienced PTSD,” Xuan added.

Not all media are the same, and the amount of stress some people experience may depend on where they’re getting their information, said Aaron Kivisto, a psychology researcher at the University of Indianapolis who wasn’t involved in the study.

“There’s a tremendous amount of variability in the types of media accessible to the public, and some options present a clear risk of traumatization and no amount of consumption should be considered safe,” Kivisto said by email.

“While most acts of mass violence covered by the media soften the visible realities of the situation, internet-connected viewers are able to traumatize themselves unwittingly at the click of a button,” Kivisto advised.

“For example, the recent Christchurch shooting included live video recorded by the shooter and was made available to anyone with an internet connection, and terrorist groups like ISIS have distributed graphic videos for years,” Kivisto said. “Media viewers need to be cautious to avoid inadvertently traumatizing themselves by following their curiosity.”

SOURCE: bit.ly/2UwsSQE Science Advances, online April 17, 2019.

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