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Many of the Media Matters pieces in StressPoints have examined the way different media platforms enable increased ease of access and frequency of portraying traumatic events (e.g., images or video footage of war, terrorism, mass casualties, natural events). Although there are mixed results in the literature, there is evidence to indicate that viewing portrayals of traumatic events in the media could lead to increased symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Holman et al., 2020). A recent review even discussed the ways in which media exposure related to COVID-19 could have negative impacts at the individual level, as well as broader public health levels (Garfin et al., 2021). However, the relationships among trauma, media exposure, and psychiatric symptoms such as PTSD, as well as individual factors that might be contributing to these relations, remain unclear.

Previous literature has linked media exposure, pretraumatic event psychopathology (e.g., depression, anxiety), and prior exposure to violence to the development of PTSD (e.g., Busso et al., 2014). Maladaptive physiological responses (e.g., one’s body not responding to a safe or unsafe environment in a helpful way) have also been shown to serve as a risk factor for PTSD (e.g., Delahanty et al., 2006). Busso and colleagues (2014) investigated the combination of media exposure and physiological responses in predicting PTSD. Following the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, researchers investigated markers of physiological reactivity (Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia [RSA] and Pre-ejection Period [PEP]) to a stressful laboratory task and did not find that these measures were directly related to PTSD symptoms. However, for some, media exposure moderated the relation between physiological reactivity and PTSD symptoms in this study. Specifically, PEP reactivity interacted with media exposure such that for individuals with low PEP and low media exposure, PTSD symptoms were low. However, for individuals with low PEP reactivity and high media exposure, PTSD symptoms were high. Although there was no main effect for physiological reactivity, it played an important role for some individuals.

Additionally, a recent study sought to begin investigating whether pre-trauma brain activity could also be contributing to an increased likelihood of developing PTSD or other psychiatric symptoms following media exposure of traumatic events. Dick and colleagues (2021) examined the contribution of brain reactivity patterns and hurricane-related media exposure on PTSD symptoms following Hurricane Irma in a group of 9- to 11-year-old children in different geographic regions, including those with no direct exposure to hurricane Irma. Not only did the amount of media exposure predict PTSD symptoms, but researchers also found that, as predicted, pre-event brain activity did as well. Reactivity to emotional and neutral faces in brain regions associated with anxiety and stress (right amygdala, bilateral orbitofrontal cortex, and right parahippocampal gyrus) moderated the link between hurricane-related media exposure and PTSD symptoms in an interesting way. Among children with more Irma-related media exposure, more reactivity to neutral faces paired with less reactivity to fear faces were most vulnerable to PTSD symptoms, whereas children exhibiting the reverse pattern (less reactivity to neutral faces and more reactivity to fear faces) were less likely to report PTSD symptoms in spite of exposure to hurricane-related media exposure. These results indicate individual differences in brain responses to media exposure could alter symptoms. It is not known how these results would translate in similar findings in adults. 

It is important to note that relationships among traumatic events, media exposure, and one’s response (including body and brain) remain an area of ongoing study. More research is needed to better understand the true impact of media exposure of certain events. However, it does appear that there are certain negative consequences to high levels of media exposure, at least for some. Understanding who might be particularly at risk for the negative consequences of media exposure, as well as those who might have certain protective elements, is critical to help alleviate the burden media exposure of traumatic events could be placing on individuals and society at large.

About the Author

Noelle Smith, PhD, is the Project Director for the Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program, Associate Director for the VA Northeast Program Evaluation Center (NEPEC), and an assistant clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine. Her expertise is in evidence-based treatments for PTSD and suicide, as well as program evaluation. Dr. Smith is the StressPoints section editor for Media Matters and welcomes submissions for this section in the future.


Busso, D. S., McLaughlin, K. A., & Sheridan, M. A. (2014). Media exposure and sympathetic nervous system reactivity predict PTSD symptoms after the Boston Marathon bombings. Depression and anxiety31, 551-558.

Delahanty, D. L., & Nugent, N. R. (2006). Predicting PTSD prospectively based on prior trauma history and immediate biological responses. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1071, 27-40.

Dick, A. S., Silva, K., Gonzalez, R., Sutherland, M. T., Laird, A. R., Thompson, W. K., ... & Comer, J. S. (2020). Neural vulnerability and hurricane-related media predict posttraumatic stress in youth. bioRxiv.

Garfin, D. R., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2020). The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. Health psychology39, 355.

Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., Lubens, P., & Silver, R. C. (2020). Media exposure to collective trauma, mental health, and functioning: does it matter what you see?. Clinical Psychological Science8, 111-124.