Stress-response mediated by repeated media exposure to collective traumatic events

In the modern world, information about traumatic events, such as earthquakes, major accidents, and terrorist strikes claiming innocent lives, spreads quickly. Further, media provides repeated exposure to the major catastrophic events in the form of newsfeeds that add new details about the events as they are uncovered. It is an inherently important question whether media exposure can induce stress responses in a similar manner and magnitude than being at the site of the catastrophe. This is an important question from at least three perspectives: 1) answering this question provides important information about human cognition and emotional responses in the modern global information flow environment, 2) mental health professionals can better appreciate media-exposure related problems, and 3) also given that the population at large is often the intended psychological target of terrorists who carry out acts of violence.

In their recent study, Holman et al. (2013) compared media vs. direct exposure to a collective trauma, by carrying out a survey over the two weeks following the Boston marathon bombings, in representative samples of persons living in Boston, New York, and rest of the united states. When the authors adjusted acute stress symptom scores for demographics, preceding mental health, and prior collective stress exposure, it was observed that >6 hours of media exposure to the marathon bombing events during the week following the bombings was associated with higher acute stress symptoms than direct exposure to the bombings.

These very interesting findings suggest that indirect exposure to traumatic events via repeated media coverage may produce even stronger stress responses than direct exposure to the event, which is a clear indication of the robustness of prolonged and repeated media-exposure in triggering stress-related mental health problems, even though, as pointed out by the authors, it has to be kept in mind that emergency actions taken by the local authorities in cases of direct exposure to the bombings likely lessened distress in that group. Mass media may thus inadvertently serve as a channel that spreads the psychological trauma far beyond the directly affected population. Outside of the scope of considering the effects of mass-media coverage, these results further suggest that being repeatedly related information about a catastrophic event can trigger stress response and produce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder without direct exposure, which may also be an important form of societal-cultural learning.

Reference: Holman EA, Garfin DR, Silver RC. Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (2013) e-publication ahead of print. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1316265110

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