When TV is bad for you

In fiction, writers ensure that their characters always do what they do for a reason that a reader can empathise with. Fiction makes sense but reality is so messy.

Our current reality is messy and totally unpredictable and we have a media that obsessed with feeding us only bad news. Reporters are ready to lay down their lives to bring us gritty, bloody images as they happen. When they are reporting on a battle, we can hear the bullets firing and bombs dropping live. We can watch children and women running from the crumbling buildings, we can see terrible war wounds.

There is hunger now in parts of Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan, South Ethiopia, North Kenya, Somali. We shall view images of severely malnourished children – eyes rolling back into their heads – close to heaven’s door. Their mothers watching – so brutalised, traumatised and helpless at what they have seen their children go through – they can’t even cry.

The Western world is falling over each other to produce the type of dictators that have been the reason for coup-de-tat’s in Africa. We are watching elections in Europe with trepidation.

The threat of a terrorist attack is ever present. Whether it’s in Kenya, France, Belgium– we will feel it across the world in all the detail that is possible. The sound on TV of ambulances screeching as they leave the latest terrorist bombing. The chaos, the blame game and depending on where you live – the travel advisory.

The more gory and unsettling, the more often a story is repeated.

How often to you feed yourself this type of news?

What is the impact of this on your health?

Alison Holmana and colleagues at the University of California used the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013 to compare the stress response among those who were present at the Boston Marathon bombing and those who were exposed to the trauma only through the media. The paper they published from this research can be downloaded free…

Media’s role in spreading bombing trauma

The findings of the research are startling. Using a sample of about 4,500 people, Alison and colleagues found that those people who spend six hours or more of daily media exposure to the bombing suffered higher acute stress symptoms than those people who were present at the bombing in Boston.

The more hours spent watching distressing images, the more symptoms of stress people show.

It does sound odd that people present at a bombing were less stressed than those watching it on TV, but American researchers have studied posttraumatic stress related to TV viewing after 9/11 and others and have found that there is a health impact to repeated media exposure to real life extremely stressful events.

It may be because those directly involved received a lot of professional help and there is no shame in seeking this help whereas those watching on TV may not be deemed in need of such assistance.

Because the Boston study done in a single time-point (cross-sectional study) – the more likely interpretation is that those people who are most affected the first time they observe the coverage in the media, seek out more material on the bombing in a hope of coming to terms with it. This may initially bring some relief but the more they watch these extremely traumatic scenes as they are repeated over and over on TV, their distress gets worse and they start to suffer from the stress of it.

Many of those watching the events in the media also spend time ruminating on what they see which turns the event into a chronic stressor with resulting health implications.

The researchers suggested that health workers should advice people presenting with stress related symptoms to limit watching news coverage of local or national trauma.

The researchers lay it clearly – the repeated showing of gruesome, distressing images is not in the public interest.

But it is amazingly difficult to turn away – our brains are wired to closely watch potential threats – it was the key to survival. Watching prey in the wild, they almost appear to have eyes on the back of their heads – it is necessary.

However, absorbing every detail of a starving dying child, a bombing, a homicide, does not help us to survive, it just multiplies our stress.

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