In an age of constant mass media and social media access, we are seeing an increased interest in understanding how that access affects our psychological well-being. One area of interest, and possible concern, pertains to the access and exposure we can readily have to traumatic world-wide events, such as disasters or violence. Particularly with increased 24- hour news cycles and/or access to live footage, what do we know so far about the possible effects of viewing traumatic events on our psychological well-being?
What are Traumatic Events?
It is important to first understand that a traumatic event is one in which a person experiences a threat to his/her wellbeing, whether physically, emotionally and/or psychologically. Examples of traumatic events can be an accident, community violence, school violence, natural disasters etc. Traumatic events can affect not only people who are directly involved, but also those who witnessed it or learned about it in detail. Mass and social media has increased our ability to witness or learn about traumatic events; this is one form of indirect or secondary exposure.
How does Media Exposure to Traumatic Events Affect our Psychological Wellbeing?
Research shows that there are strong links between media exposure to traumatic events and transient negative psychological experiences, such as feelings of anxiety, fear, depression and/or anger. This means that these feelings may arise but many people recover over time without clinical intervention.
Research is also beginning to identify factors that can increase the risk of experiencing more enduring symptoms:
- Community sensitivity: People who have lived in a region that had recently experienced a disaster similar to that being shown through media may be at increased risk.
- Gender: Females have been found to demonstrate increased susceptibility to negative symptoms than males. Reasons for this that have been proposed include heighted empathy, increased levels of perceived vulnerability or a greater tendency to acknowledge their distress.
- Prior trauma exposure: Exposure to traumatic events via mass or social media when a person has experienced previous traumas may lead to more enduring or significant symptoms.
How Can You Handle Transient Negative Psychological Experiences?
While not all exposure to traumatic events may lead to negative psychological experiences, it is beneficial to know what you can do when you or someone you know does experience them:
- Be Mindful of your media exposure to traumatic events and take media breaks as you need. Also, recognize that higher levels of stress in other areas of life (i.e. home, school, work, family etc.) can make it more difficult to cope with traumatic events. If other areas of life are quite stressful, consider decreasing your media exposure.
- Practice Self Care. Make sure to continue to take care of yourself, getting regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and eating well. Self- care also includes doing activities that make you feel capable and in control (e.g. crossing something small off your to-do list) and engaging in activities that are self-soothing (e.g. taking a hot bath, going for a walk etc.)
- Stay Connected and engaged in trusted relationships. Regularly being with people you care about and care about you can provide a sense of stability, safety and connection.
- Monitor Yourself/Others. If you notice that your symptoms (e.g. fear, low mood, anger) or those of someone you know are increasing in frequency, intensity or duration, reach out to a mental health professional for support.
Hopwood, T.L., & Schutte, N.S. (2017). Psychological Outcomes in Reaction to Media Exposure to Disasters and Large-Scale Violence: A Meta-Analysis., Psychology of Violence, 7 (2), 316-327.
Neria, Y., & Sullivan, G.M. (2011). Understanding the mental health effects of indirect exposure to mass trauma through the media. Journal of American Medical Association, 206 (12), 1374-1375.
-Written by Dr. Andrea Librado C.Psych (Supervised Practice) Clinical Psychologist