Excessive television consumption during tragedies is bad for your mental health
Why do we stayed glued to the television during national tragedies, such as the killing of 20 children and six adults, watching the same images over and over again, repeatedly exposing ourselves to horror?
And when does our consumption of media during a disaster such as 9/11, superstorm Sandy or the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School actually become pointless, or even pathological?
Humans are hard wired to try to make sense of their environment, said Stephen Duncombe, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. But a massacre of children defies explanation. "We crave a rational explanation and repeat the immediate exposure over and over again to try to make sense of it," he explained. "It's the same reason people slow down to look when they see an accident: We're actually looking for clues," to help us understand what happened, so we can learn from it and feel safer ourselves, he explained.
But excessive exposure to media dwelling on horrific events can distort our perception of reality. Studies show that the most fearful, anxiety-prone Americans are not the people who actually have the most to fear, but "the people who watch the most TV," said Duncombe.
When you find yourself watching the same images and reports without taking in new information, it's time to ask "what am I getting from this?" added Robert Simmermon, an Atlanta psychologist who has studied the effects of mass media on individuals. Some people revel in the coverage of monstrous acts to give "a dimension of excitement" to their own lackluster lives or to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. Still others "need that connection to get through their own feelings," of loss and sadness via a catharsis provided by televised reports of other people's tragedies.
People need to "self regulate" their exposure to television, chorused Geraldine Downey, a psychology professor at Columbia University. t's unlikely that watching television for hours on end is likely to soothe the sorrow and discomfiting feelings that arise from realizing that innocent adults and children can be killed for absolutely no reason. What works to feel better, she said, is taking constructive actions to imbue the event with meaning, which could involve anything from a contribution of time or money to taking any number of actions to "increase the kindness in the world," she said.
"Parents and teachers might take steps to make sure their own kids are OK or you might write your legislator about gun control. Or you can volunteer to work with children who don't have an optimal upbringing," Downey suggested.
The killer was said to have been an extremely isolated boy with no friends. "Making sure that doesn't happen to other children," is one meaningful way to pay homage to the victims while doing one's part to reduce the risk of future horrific events, said Downey. "Don't just be a consumer of media," said Downey. "That will make you feel worse. Being totally consumed is not processing a tragedy. You process things by standing back a little bit and doing something constructive," said Downey.