December 9, 2013 – Most of us have found ourselves glued to the TV or a Twitter feed in the wake of a disaster — just think, the typhoon in the Philippines, Sandy Hook, 9/11. Although we like to stay informed, new research suggests that such repeat exposure is bad for our mental health.The more hours we follow these traumatic events, the greater the psychological stress caused, according to a new study, which looked at the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombers. Excessive media exposure to the event — 6 or more hours a day — actually led to more trauma than that caused from being at or near the marathon.

The researchers surveyed 4,675 adults from Boston, New York and a representative national sample 2 to 4 weeks after the 2013 Boston Marathon to assess their media exposure, direct exposure to the bombings, and their acute stress responses to the bombings. Those exposed to 6 or more hours per day of media coverage of the bombing were 9 times more likely report symptoms of acute stress, such as hyper-vigilance, than those exposed to less than 1 hour a day.

Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California, Irvine, who studies collective traumas, and just co-authored a paper of the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. SPSP chatted with Silver about the study — which will be a topic of her talk “Ready and Waiting: Studying Extreme Events in the Real World” at the SPSP annual conference in Austin this February — and her recommendations for keeping up with current events while reducing traumatic stress.

Roxane Cohen Silver, UC IrvineSPSP: How did you personally become interested in studying trauma and media exposure?

Silver: My colleagues and I began a study of the September 11 terrorist attacks over a decade ago. In that study, we saw that the psychological impact of the terrorist attacks extended beyond the directly affected communities of New York and Washington D.C., and we believed that media was a conduit through which these effects were dispersed broadly. A few months ago, we published an article in Psychological Science in which we found that people who watched more than 4 hours a day of 9/11- and Iraq War-related television coverage — in the weeks after the attacks and at the start of the war — reported both acute and post-traumatic stress symptoms over time. In addition, those who watched more than 4 hours a day of 9/11-related coverage in the weeks after the attacks reported more physician-diagnosed physical health ailments 2 to 3 years later.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, it was clear that media exposure now meant more than just “television”. Today, individuals get their news from a variety of traditional media sources (TV, radio, print), but with increasing frequency, individuals seek news content from nontraditional sources, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, as well as through streaming video on news websites. We wondered to what extent this explosion of media exposure after the Boston Marathon bombings might have a similar impact as we saw after 9/11.

SPSP: Were you surprised that extensive media coverage caused more acute trauma for people than being onsite at the marathon? What were you expecting when you first set out?

Silver: As noted above, we had hints from our 9/11 study that media could serve as a powerful mechanism to diffuse the mental health impact of collective traumas like the Boston Marathon Bombings. In our 9/11 research, a substantial number of individuals with indirect exposure, such as those who watched the attacks on live television, reported symptoms both acutely and over the years afterward at levels that were comparable to individuals who experienced the attacks proximally and directly. Nonetheless, we were surprised to see that repeated media exposure to the Boston Marathon Bombings was more strongly associated with acute stress response than having been at the site of the Marathon or knowing someone who was there. That was unexpected.

SPSP: What do you think causes the link between media exposure and trauma to be stronger than witnessing the event firsthand?

Silver: There is mounting evidence in studies conducted by psychologists in other labs that both live and video images of traumatic events can trigger flashbacks and may encourage fear conditioning. When media sources replay graphic images over and over, they may be feeding into a similar process. Direct exposure, however, ends when the event ends. We suspect that extended, repetitive media exposure may turn the acute event into a chronic stressor, with the potential for long-term physiological consequences.

SPSP: Did you find any differences between exposure to social media versus traditional media?And did the study include any analysis of social media related to the bombings?

Silver: We collected data on the use of social media after the Boston Marathon Bombing as well as the content of images seen on both broadcast and social media. At this point we have not yet completed these statistical analyses. I hope to have done so by the SPSP meeting.

SPSP: Do your research interests change the way you watched media coverage of events such as the marathon bombing?

Silver: I do not watch any television and I have not done so for many, many years. I do not watch YouTube videos; I do not have a Facebook account, nor do I have a Twitter account. I read a lot about the news online, but I do not watch streaming video on my computer screen or Smartphone; I do not look at graphic pictures. On this topic, I live what I preach.

SPSP: How do you recommend people stay informed on current events while minimizing trauma from media exposure?

Silver: That is an excellent question. We see no evidence that single or minimal exposure – one or two hours a day – to media information is problematic. Instead, our new findings contribute to the growing body of research suggesting that there is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to graphic images of horror.

SPSP: Some people suggest that engaging with such media coverage for 6 or more hours a day seems quite high – is this atypical behavior?

Silver: The average number of combined hours our sample was engaged with media was about 4.7, so while 6 or more hours is above average, it’s not deviant. And, we are not merely talking about television here. Someone could have streaming news on their computer screen while they are working, they could have the radio on in the background, they can be checking Facebook or Twitter on and off, and watch a few hours of television at the end of the day – we are talking about combined exposure of 6 or more hours throughout the day. We do not believe that people who engage in such behavior are more likely to have a preexisting mental health condition or a predisposition for experiencing negative psychological responses. Society as a whole is simply more ‘wired’ than it used to be, and we may be less aware of the potential impact of this media exposure.

SPSP: How does this most recent study fit into the larger body of research on coping with traumas?

Silver: My colleagues and I have conducted a number of studies of collective traumas over the past 20 years: We have studied the impact of both natural (earthquakes, firestorms) and man-made disasters (school shootings, terrorist attacks) in the United States and abroad (Chile, Indonesia). Across our studies, we have found that the psychological impact of these events tends not to be limited only to individuals directly affected. Moreover, the degree of psychological response tendsnotto be explained simply by the degree of exposure to or loss from the trauma. That is, across our program of research we have not seen a clear dose-response relationship: The degree of emotional response tends not to be proportional to the degree of exposure, amount of loss, or proximity to the trauma — as “objective” loss decreases, we do not see a corresponding decrease in distress. Our new study fits within that framework in that we again see that direct exposure is not necessarily the strongest predictor of psychological response to a collective trauma.

-Lisa M.P. Munoz

*This post was originally published on Dec. 9, 2013 to spsp.org