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Can watching trauma on TV lead to PTSD? Maybe, study says

In this April 15, 2013 photo, medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following a bomb explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013.
In this April 15, 2013 photo, medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following a bomb explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013.
Charles Krupa, Associated Press

People who watched six hours or more of coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing exhibited more stress, according to a study that found watching trauma on TV may lead to PTSD.

Round-the-clock media coverage of terrorist events may "unintentionally spread negative impacts beyond the directly exposed area," warned researchers from the University of California Irvine.

"The notion remains controversial, but new research suggests that PTSD might indeed be transmitted over the airwaves," according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. "The study finds that those who spent more than six hours a day watching media coverage of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath in the week after suffered more powerful stress reactions than did people who were directly involved in the tragedy but watched less news coverage of the events.

"Acute stress symptoms increased with each additional hour of bombing-related media exposure via television, social media, videos, print or radio," the researchers said in a written statement.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings, the researchers had 4,675 Americans fill out surveys online. For their time they received either compensation or free Internet access. The researchers said respondents are a representative sample of the United States, including Boston and New York City, where high-profile terrorist actions have occurred.

“We were very surprised that repeated media exposure was so strongly associated with acute stress symptoms,” said E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing science at UC Irvine and the study’s lead author, in a release about the study.

“We suspect that there’s something about repeated exposure to violent images or sounds that keeps traumatic events alive and can prolong the stress response in vulnerable people. There is mounting evidence that live and video images of traumatic events can trigger flashbacks and encourage fear conditioning. If repeatedly viewing traumatic images reactivates fear or threat responses in the brain and promotes rumination, there could be serious health consequences,” she said.

It's not the first discussion of what watching trauma in the media does to stress levels. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has a National Center for PTSD that notes, "Many people find it hard to resist news of traumatic events, such as disasters and terrorist attacks. As awful as it is to watch and read about, many still cannot turn away. Why is this kind of news so hard to resist? Some say it is because people are trying to inform themselves to be prepared in case of future disaster or attacks. Others say that people are watching and reading news in an effort to understand and process the event. Still others say the media is trying to draw you in with exciting images almost like those from an action movie. Whatever the reason, we need to understand the effects that this type of news exposure may have."

There is, the center says, a "link between watching news of traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks, and stress symptoms." What it doesn't know is why that link is so strong. Certain people or those who engage in certain behaviors are more prone to be affected negatively, it said. The VA also cautions parents to limit children's exposure to coverage of such events.

The UC Irvine study said either being present for the bombings or being close to someone who was predicted ongoing stress. People who had direct exposure to other traumatic or terrorist events, such as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December or the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, also had stronger trauma reactions to the Boston attack. The Los Angeles Times article noted that Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 did not have that impact.

"But the single factor that most strongly predicted high stress reactions was having watched six or more hours a day of media coverage of the bombings and their aftermath," Healy wrote.

People with mental health issues, or who had experienced other traumatic events like 9/11 or the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, also had strong reactions to the bombings, a story from WHEC in Rochester, N.Y., noted.

"The study challenges key assumptions about how people react to collective traumas, such as the idea that individuals must be directly exposed to an event to be at risk for stress-related disorders. It also raises questions about the latest edition of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which specifically excludes media-based exposure as a potential trigger for trauma response among nonprofessionals," the news release on the research from UC Irvine said.

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