Future Tense

Could You Get PTSD From Reading Too Much Social Media Coverage of the Newtown Shooting?

A crush of reporters speak to Sandy Hook Elementary School library clerk Mary Ann Jacob

Photo by Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

Can consuming too much social media and news coverage during upsetting events like the Newtown school shooting cause post-traumatic stress disorder? The journalism blog Muck Rack asked that question on Monday, writing, “Is it possible to consume too much news and media, and be adversely effected by it?” 

NPR’s Andy Carvin threw his weight behind the potential trauma of overdosing on news. So did David Clinch of the social media news tool Storyful: “We provide professional PTSD advice for all @Storyful staff who routinely watch/verify video from war zones,” he tweeted.

Some journalists, however, found the notion … a bit “ridiculous.” Just “log out,” they wrote on Twitter a bit flippantly. “ ‘War veterans aren’t the only ones suffering,’ says group with absolutely no concept of perspective,” wrote Sara Morrison, an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.*

But as ridiculous as it may sound at first glance, Todd Essig, a clinical psychologist who blogs about mental health and technology for Forbes, believes PTSD from social media is a genuine possibility. He pointed me to studies showing media-induced PTSD following Sept. 11, and he mentioned that some children who kept re-watching footage of the World Trade Center towers collapsing developed PTSD.

The Muck Rack post did get one thing wrong: It improperly labeled media-induced PTSD as “secondary PTSD.” That is the label psychologists and psychiatrists give to the anxiety that caregivers of those with PTSD get. What we’re really talking about here is more properly termed “media-induced PTSD,” Essig says.

Given the amount of news coverage and social media shares the Newtown shootings have received, and will continue to receive, it’s not outlandish to think such coverage will have negative affects on media consumers and on journalists.  

How common is social-media-induced PTSD? The answer to that question is complicated. “[S]tudies following 9/11 suggest that media-induced PTSD can be as common as one-third the PTSD rate of those who were directly affected,” Essig told me in a follow-up email.

But social media are too new for social scientists to have researched the question.

Essig thinks it isn’t helpful for others to scoff at the notion of social-media-induced PTSD: “[T]rauma is defined from the perspective of the person experiencing it, and it is not the place of the external observer to ridicule [that person] just because in their point of view that event was not particularly traumatic.”

If you have strong feelings about the matter, join Muck Rack for a discussion on the idea on Tuesday at 5 p.m. Eastern.*

Correction, Dec. 17: Due to an editing error, this post originally listed the incorrect time for the Muck Rack discussion. It is 8 p.m. Eastern/5 p.m. Pacific.

Correction, Dec. 17: This post originally misidentified Sara Morrison’s title at the Columbia Journalism Review. She is an assistant editor.