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In May 2020, a nine-minute video surfaced depicting a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for his life. Subsequent videos emerged from protests against racial injustice across the United States, many of which portrayed individuals being pepper sprayed, shot at and beaten. Although racial injustice and violent protests are not new, the existence of smart phones with high definition cameras is new (Wayne, 2016). It has never been easier to record—or even live stream—graphic events up close and share them with the world. While the existence of both smartphones and the internet has allowed the world to be more connected than ever before, we may also be at risk for greater exposure to disturbing images and videos (Holman et al., 2020). One may thus begin to wonder how frequent consumption of such graphic images impacts our mental health. Some studies have shown, perhaps unsurprisingly, positive associations between the amount of exposure to media coverage of violence and subsequent psychological distress (e.g., posttraumatic stress symptoms; Holman et al., 2020; Silver et al., 2013). Moreover, excessive, daily exposure to media coverage of a traumatic event may be associated with distress comparable to direct exposure to the trauma itself (e.g., Holman et al., 2014). However, evidence of the psychological impact of media exposure to traumatic events is mixed, and it appears that some individuals may be at greater risk than others for these negative outcomes.

Individuals who are the most susceptible to negative effects of this media exposure appear to be those who have a pre-existing vulnerability, such as a history of directly experiencing a prior traumatic event, including the event that is being covered in the media (Neria & Sullivan, 2011). For example, Haravuori and colleagues (2011) found that following a school shooting, greater amounts of media exposure to details of the shooting were associated with higher levels of posttraumatic stress for students who attended the school in which the shooting had occurred; this media exposure had no significant impact on posttraumatic stress for students who attended a different school. Another study of children who were directly exposed to hurricane Gustav found that a greater amount of media exposure to details of the hurricane was associated with larger increases in posttraumatic stress symptoms among children who already had high levels of symptomatology prior to the hurricane (Weems et al., 2012). However, media exposure to the hurricane did not impact posttraumatic stress symptoms for children with low baseline levels of symptomatology. Therefore, media coverage of a traumatic event appears to have differential impacts depending on characteristics of the viewer.   
In the days and weeks following the death of George Floyd, media coverage from news outlets and social media posts rapidly spread. A wave of protests and demonstrations against racial injustice swept across the globe, with people in different countries rallying together. Many individuals shared a strong sense of outrage at the injustices that have occurred countless times in our history, and this anger fueled movements around the world that demanded reformation and accountability. Although the psychological impacts of these recent protests remain unknown, research has been conducted on earlier demonstrations against racial injustice. For example, Strasshofer and colleagues (2018) assessed posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, anger reactions, and posttraumatic growth among university students who were exposed to and/or who participated in the protests following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. While this study was cross-sectional, and thus causal conclusions cannot be drawn, the findings suggested that anger in response to the violence may have facilitated posttraumatic growth (e.g., perceptions of increased personal strength and greater appreciation for life) among those who had experienced symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. It is possible that collective solidarity—and even anger—following tragic events may contribute to positive psychological outcomes.

The evidence around the impact of media exposure to traumatic events remains both mixed and complicated. However, we can draw some tentative conclusions from this evidence, and from research on direct exposure to traumatic events, in order to carve a path forward. Given the varying impacts of media exposure on mental health outcomes, there is likely not one set of guidelines that will be helpful for everyone. Rather, individuals may benefit from attending to their own reactions, being mindful about watching or reading about traumatic events, and gaining awareness of their own vulnerabilities to distress. We know that psychological distress, including posttraumatic stress symptoms, can be exacerbated by daily life stress (e.g., Brewin et al., 2000; Ponnamperuma & Nicolson, 2018). Thus, individuals may find that their tolerance for media exposure to stressful events varies depending on other stressors they are experiencing. On the other hand, social support can serve as a buffer against psychological distress and posttraumatic stress symptoms following direct exposure to a trauma (Brewin et al., 2000), and it is possible that seeking support may reduce distress in response to media exposure to trauma as well. Mental health clinicians are well-positioned to assist with providing education surrounding these complex relationships in order to help people gain awareness and insight into their own and others’ reactions to traumatic events. Additionally, given the rapid changes in technology and media platforms, it will be both challenging and critical for researchers to adapt the ways in which they assess how our indirect exposure to trauma impacts our mental health. 

About the Authors

Andrea Massa is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at Purdue University and a predoctoral intern at the Charleston Consortium Internship Program. She currently provides evidence-based treatment for Veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, and she conducts research focused on trauma- and substance-related intimate partner aggression.

Alyssa Jones is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky and a predoctoral intern at the Charleston Consortium Internship Program. She currently provides evidence-based treatment for trauma-related disorders at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center and the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center (NCVC) at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Her research is focused on affective mechanisms associated with the development and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder.


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Wayne, T. (2016, September). The trauma of violent news on the internet. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/fashion/the-trauma-of-violent-news-on-the-internet.html