In the current age of technology, we can find ourselves flooded by stories of tragedy and violence. This is common knowledge, as we can open our phones or laptops and almost instantly see videos of mass shootings, images of plane crashes, stories of sexual exploitation, headlines about terrorist attacks, or images of the destruction of natural disasters. We can easily find our daily lives unexpectedly inundated with graphic depictions of trauma and violent events.
A concept that may be misunderstood, or unknown by many, involves the vulnerability of the human brain to be negatively impacted by traumatic events even if we haven't personally experienced them. This concept is called vicarious traumatization. Vicarious traumatization has given us an understanding that witnessing traumatic events or even just having knowledge of the events can have negative consequences on our mental health.
Vicarious traumatization has been well recognized as a struggle that mental health providers, first responders, medical professionals, and other professionals who are routinely exposed to trauma may experience. Yet, research is now discovering that there may be a link to traumatic stress, distress, and the witnessing of traumatic events in the news. More specifically, research is finding that the bombardment of traumatic materials in the media can lead observers to experience anxiety, difficulties in coping, immense fear and feelings of helplessness, and in some cases even PTSD (Ramsden, 2017).
An important aspect to note on this issue is that no one is immune to the potential of experiencing distress after watching media coverage of trauma (especially if images and videos are involved). In fact, in one research study, individuals who had never experienced trauma prior to the witnessing of distressing media were found to also experience secondary traumatic stress symptoms (Ramsden, 2015). Even more disconcerting is that research findings indicate that the percentages of people who may experience these responses are not minuscule; as some research notes that almost one-quarter of individuals reported experiencing secondary traumatic stress symptoms after watching violent media coverage (especially those who watched the coverage more frequently) (Ramsden, 2015).
Although no one is invulnerable from experiencing these negative effects, there are some individuals who may be more vulnerable to them than others. Included in this list are individuals who struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, individuals who have a history of trauma, and children.
More research needs to be done on the issue, but of great concern is how news stories, particularly those that show graphic images or videos, may be distressing to children. When children are exposed to disturbing stories, images, or videos, they may find it difficult to process and cope with distressing stimuli. This may lead children to struggle with fear, anxiety, aggression, sleeping problems, and behavioral difficulties (Wang et al., 2006). One study suggests that watching just five minutes of distressing news daily can lead to these types of secondary traumatic stress symptoms in preschool-aged children (Wang et al., 2006).
An additional concern involves the lasting consequences that exposure to traumatic news coverage might have on a child. Children’s developing brains are vulnerable and malleable. It is unclear how the viewing of news coverage may impact children in the long-term, yet it may be cause for concern.
But there are tools to help us make educated choices about how we can mitigate the negative effects of media exposure. For practical purposes, here are a few tips:
- Observe the media (this includes coverage or videos of trauma on social media) in moderation.
- Limit the amount of news media viewed by your children.
- Talk to your children about upsetting world events they see in the media or hear about from others.
(For more information on how you can specifically support children on this topic, reference American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry).
If you begin to notice traumatic stress symptoms or other distress symptoms surfacing (some examples of these symptoms might include increased anxiety, difficulties sleeping, nightmares, increased arousal, feelings of helplessness, difficulties not thinking about the event(s), depressed mood, distress, etc.), try to:
- Decrease the amount of news or media you are viewing. Sometimes, it can be helpful to take some time off from viewing the media entirely.
- Increase the number of positive activities in your life (e.g. watch movies, read books, watch shows that provide hope and joy).
- Participate in activities that help you feel grounded and safe (spend time with loved ones, spend time in nature, do art, exercise, do mindfulness or meditation, pray or participate in spiritual activities).
- Join in advocacy efforts, volunteering, or other activities that help you feel as if you are contributing to society.
- Talk to a counselor or trusted individual about what you are experiencing.
- Know you aren’t alone and there is nothing “wrong” with you. Feel validated in knowing you are just human like the rest of us.
Comstock, C., & Platania, J. (2017). The role of media-induced secondary traumatic stress on perceptions of distress. American International Journal of Social Science, 6(1).
Lerias, D., & Byrne, M. K. (2003). Vicarious traumatization: Symptoms and predictors. Stress and Health, 19, 129-138.
News and children. (n.d.). Retrieved 2019, from American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-G…
Ramsden, P. (2015). British Psychological Society. "Viewing violent news on social media can cause trauma." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 May 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150506164240.htm>.
Ramsden, P. (2017). Vicarious trauma, PTSD and social media: Does watching graphic videos cause trauma? Retrieved from Journal of Depression and Anxiety website: https://www.longdom.org/proceedings/vicarious-trauma-ptsd-and-social-me…
Wang, Yanping, Nomura, Yoko, Pat-Horenczyk, Ruth, Doppelt, Osnat, Abramovitz, Robert, Brom, Daniel, & Chemtob, Claude. (2006). Association of Direct Exposure to Terrorism, Media Exposure to Terrorism, and Other Trauma with Emotional and Behavioral Problems in Preschool Children. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1094.