Take a Break From Violent TV News Images

Stress levels resulted from more viewing of September 11 and Iraq War news

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Were you glued to the TV in the days after 9/11? If you found it hard to tear yourself away from the grim, upsetting images, they might have had a long-term impact on your health.

A recent study has found that the violent images repeatedly shown on TV are linked to higher rates of physical and mental health problems in the U.S.

"Turn off the news - go for a walk."

The study, led by Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California at Irvine, focused on the images that came out of 9/11 and the Iraq War.

Silver and colleagues gave 2,189 U.S. participants a web-based survey one to three weeks after 9/11.

Then, 1,322 of these participants took a similar survey during the 10 days after the start of the Iraq War.

The surveys asked about how much television and other media the participants watched and about mental health and stress symptoms. It also asked about their mental and physical health before 9/11.

The researchers continued to assess these participants physical and mental health for the next three years. They especially looked for signs of acute stress and post traumatic stress.

Acute stress occurs in the several weeks immediately following an event, and post traumatic stress refers to symptoms a month after the event or later.

About 12 percent of the 1,322 who took both surveys felt high levels of acute stress in the days following 9/11, and 7 percent of them felt high stress levels in the days after the Iraq War began.

The researchers found that people who had watched more television related to both 9/11 and the Iraq War were more likely to have higher levels of both acute and post traumatic stress — even two to three years after 9/11.

This higher rate even existed after the researchers took into account the participants demographics, mental health before the events and their exposure to traumatic events over their lifetime.

If the participants had watched more than four hours a day of 9/11 footage in the days following the event, they had more physical health problems two to three years later as well.

Dr. Silver and her colleagues found that the Iraq War images that seemed to have the most negative impact on participants were those showing soldiers engaged in battle and those of dead U.S. and Allied soldiers.

The authors concluded that "Exposure to graphic media images may result in physical and psychological effects previously assumed to require direct trauma exposure."

LuAnn Pierce, a clinical social worker in Colorado, said this phenomenon is well-known in her line of work.

"It is fairly common in the field of mental health to see people in therapy who develop anxiety and specific phobias after viewing violent images," Pierce said. "Secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma, occurs when someone witnesses a traumatic event as a third party."

She said that counselors and first responders are at especially high risk for secondary trauma.

"Likewise, those who relive traumatic events like 9-11 on televisions and other media are also at-risk - particularly children," she added. "This is also true of kids who witness domestic violence, whether they see it firsthand or hear it from another room."

Pierce described cases she has treated where children developed phobias based on images they had seen. One girl became afraid of going to school because of a news segment in which another girl's parents were murdered while she was at school. Another child developed panic attacks from seeing red polka dots because of seeing a newscast showing drops of blood on a sidewalk after a child's death.

"These cases may have resulted in more extreme reactions, but they are examples of what can happen," she said. "While we can't ignore reality, we have choices about what we pay attention to and allow children to watch — exercise caution to protect your mental health and that of those you love."

Dr. Silver said the study should not be interpreted to support censorship, but it offers people awareness of how they may be affected.

"I would not advocate restricting nor censoring war images for the psychological well-being of the public," she said. "Instead, I think it's important for people to be aware that there is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to graphic images of horror."

The authors noted in their conclusion that the current ability to watch images pretty much anywhere should be taken into account as well.

"Vivid images now reach a larger audience than ever before with the ongoing widespread availability of graphic streaming video on the Internet, YouTube, social media, and smart phones," they wrote.

"Television is no longer the only way to spread this vivid content," they continued. "Media outlets, policy makers, parents, psychologists and other health care professionals must be sensitive to the potential negative consequences of a steady diet or sudden influx of this material. "

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science. It was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 5, 2012
Last Updated:
September 10, 2012