Regardless of how gruesome or graphic coverage of a newsworthy event might be, some TV viewers just can't seem to turn away.
According to the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, some people may watch television coverage of a traumatic event for hours because they want to become informed and be prepared in case of a future disaster or attack. Others may watch to understand and process the event. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs researchers found that following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, adults watched an average of eight hours of media coverage while children watched three hours for the first few days following the attack.
"Perhaps being drawn to the violence of traumatic events is part of human nature," says Laura Drury, MSW, LICSW, director, Clinical Social Services at Butler Hospital. "The history of humanity is replete with violence and trauma. And, today, people are both fascinated and repelled by the violence of catastrophic events such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack."
Consider the fact that drivers often slow down to gape at the carnage of a horrid auto accident, Drury points out.
"In this and other ways, we participate in the vicarious experience of violence safely 'once removed' - it's happening to someone else," she says. "Another example is the popularity of professional sports like hockey and football. Despite ongoing media coverage of professional football players suffering life-threatening brain injuries, football is as popular as ever. Consider last year's Super Bowl which was viewed by 110 million fans (nearly 40 percent of the population)."
When is enough enough?
Drury believes watching coverage of traumatic events can be OK, but hours of graphic coverage can result in someone experiencing increased anxiety or fear. They may become upset and/or have physical symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, or crying spells. "If you are having nightmares, don't watch TV before going to bed," she says.
Negative effects of watching excessive TV coverage of traumatic events include becoming desensitized to violence, experiencing fatigue, having a heightened startle response, feeling irritable and agitated, or having anxiety and fear.
In general, Drury advises limiting exposure to TV coverage. "Get information from a variety of sources such as reading a newspaper or talking with colleagues, friends, or clergy about the disaster instead of watching lengthy TV coverage," she advises. "Get out of the house or get some exercise." You may also want to avoid media outlets on the Internet - including Twitter and Facebook - as well as the radio, if the coverage is too much for you to handle in a healthy way.
It's also important to maintain a healthy mindset regarding media coverage. "While the media plays an important role in keeping us informed, their industry is very competitive and they want to keep people tuning in," Drury says. "Ratings are very important. In general, media tends to be sensational and dramatic. Journalists and news anchors are masters in getting us to watch TV."
It may also be comforting to know, as you watch people experience horrid events, that research has found that many survivors of trauma are remarkably resilient and recover from the experience, oftentimes without any psychological intervention.
Be careful what your children watch, too. Young children should not be exposed to graphic depiction of catastrophic events on TV. Be mindful that while you are monitoring your children's TV exposure, they may be hearing graphic stories and details from their friends. "If children appear upset, anxious, withdrawn, or quiet, talk to them in an age-appropriate way about what's happened and answer their questions," Drury suggests. "Reassure young children of their own safety."
Drury also advises limiting TV coverage for adolescents. "Talk about what's happened," she says. "Ask how they feel and what they think about a traumatic event. Explain that while TV and media are useful in reporting what's happened, it can be hurtful and it is not helpful to repeatedly watch too much of the coverage. If you are concerned by your child's responses, consider restricting their TV viewing and, if necessary, remove the TV from their room and closely monitor or restrict what they watch on electronic devices."
If you have any tips to share about how you manage media-relates stress, please share onButler Hospital's Facebook page. They may help others, too!