A new study out Wednesday might just reaffirm your worst fears about staying glued to Twitter or cable news during a mass tragedy like the latest school shooting. It suggests that getting exposed to media coverage of these events can create a vicious emotional cycle that not only sends you into despair, but also makes you more likely to tune into the next widely broadcast atrocity.
For their study, published in Science Advances, researchers at the University of California, Irvine used the survey company GfK’s KnowledgePanel, a service that offers small cash rewards to users for every online or phone survey they take. Though the service has its limitations (people who regularly take paid surveys might not be representative of the general population), it also allowed the researchers to study the same group of people over a long time with relative ease, in this case around three years.
They surveyed nearly 4,500 people soon after the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which left three people dead and more than 250 injured. Among other things, these volunteers were asked about their emotional reaction to the bombing, their exposure to media coverage of the attack, and how worried they were about future tragic events.
As other studies have shown, people who had the most exposure to media about the tragedy were more likely to feel stressed, even when they were asked again six months later. At the two-year-anniversary of the bombing, they were still more likely to feel worried about the future. And when they were surveyed at least five days after the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, those same people were also more likely to report watching the media coverage of that event. As before, people who tuned in the most to coverage of the Pulse shooting were then more likely to feel distressed about it.
“These findings reinforce prior work from our lab (and others) that has consistently demonstrated an association between event-related media consumption and stress symptoms in the aftermath of a collective trauma such as a mass violence event,” lead author Rebecca Thompson, a psychologist at UCI, told Gizmodo via email. “Our study is unique in that it is the first to demonstrate the pattern of repeated media exposure to mass violence and distress over time and over the course of multiple events, among a large sample of individuals who were followed for several years.”
It’s fair to wonder just how responsible social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube might be for fueling this cycle, given that they often amplify our worst impulses and regularly allow bad actors to spread false or misleading accounts of a public tragedy (including with the recent Notre Dame cathedral fire). Thompson and her team did take into account the various ways people get their news, asking the volunteers about their exposure to seven different sources of media consumption, including social media. But they didn’t tease out how often people got news from any one outlet, nor the individual impact these different outlets could have on our collective psyche.
“Such a question is the focus of ongoing work in our lab,” said Thompson.
Depressing as the study might be, it’s hardly the first to show a similar “contagion effect” from the media. Research has regularly shown that the media reporting surrounding a celebrity’s suicide can raise the risk of viewers experiencing suicidal ideation or attempting suicide themselves. But just as public health organizations have created guidelines around responsible suicide reporting for media outlets to follow (even if they often don’t), Thompson says that there are ways for the media to mitigate the despair they cause their audiences.
“For media outlets, we recommend a moderation of the sensationalistic aspects of the news coverage of these events, so as not to incite excessive worry and distress among viewers,” she said.
Viewers themselves can take steps to protect their emotional state when the next mass tragedy inevitably occurs.
“For those at home, we recommend more mindfulness when making choices about how much media coverage they are consuming,” she said. “Using the media for information during a mass tragedy is not in and of itself psychologically harmful, but not allowing oneself to become consumed by these events when they occur could minimize some of the distress we are seeing in our respondents.”
If you struggle with suicidal thoughts please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.