Unfortunately, exposure to acts of violence has become all too common. Adults as well as children can be affected by the media information streaming into our homes after yet another act of terrorism or violence scrolls across our electric windows to the world. I think that we underestimate the impact of our exposure as a whole to these events via media.
The information age has resulted in real time coverage of some violent events as they unfold. As a survivor of trauma, observing the public reaction to media when these events occur has become of interest to me. I observe a response that looks like a unique group form of the “fight or flight” response. I am concerned about how the long term effects of these frequent exposures and responses might manifest. We know very little about how the public as a group reacts to repeated exposure to violence.
I do not think that the same physiological intensity comes into play with violent media exposure because we identify the event as not an IMMEDIATE threat. However, we are more frequently exposed to violent events through the media. Learning about an event can produce traumatic stress. The immediate reaction to many media stories seems to be one of interest or curiosity in the event. We want to gather all the facts we can about the event that has caught out attention. I feel it is a part of why our attention is quickly drawn into seeing violent events on screen. It is important to our survival to be able to quickly identify danger in our environment. The computer screen provides an element of separation from the event, which is a part of why I think we become less likely to have the same strong physiological response as if we were a part of the actual event.
Watching the violent media event seems to induce enough of a fear response for people to want to fight. Our fight response is not fulfilled by just watching the media event but wants to “do” something. This may turn into positive “fights” like advocacy for the event victims or donations to charities. An example of this was demonstrated after the 9/11 attacks. Donations flowed into the Red Cross and other charitable organizations related to this tragedy. People lined up for blocks to donate blood to ensure resources would be available for those injured during the attack. Other times it seems our fight reactions bring out some of our less desirable traits as human beings. Prejudice against Muslims and those assumed to be of Middle Eastern origin developed and continues to increase. Retaliatory attacks and acts of war were carried out in a very tangible example of fighting. Those answering the 9/11 fight response were not at ground zero but exposed by media and information given to them.
I think the flight response takes its own form in our reactions to at large violence as well. At one time it was simple to turn off the TV and not have yourself or children exposed to unfolding violent events. This is not realistic in our current world of instant information availability. If we know we cannot win a fight, we will try to escape. I think that we do not truly appreciate the effect of the current lack of this ability to escape from violent events. A dripping faucet will eventually fill a bathtub, but not as quickly as a sudden opening of the faucet. A drip is more difficult to notice at first and I think constant drips of fear from violent events cannot be escaped in the information age. When an animal or a human cannot escape, they adapt to the threat. This again seems to be able to take both positive and negative forms on our human group as a whole. Adaptation to violence by being appropriately vigilant and not hypervigilant can prove helpful. Children and adults seem comforted by the presence of an emergency plan even if it is never used. Many emergency plans for dealing with violence have been put into place with the increase in mass shootings and terroristic acts. Changes in airport security may be another example of adaptation. I think in some of the more negative manifestations adaptation in this situation could prove to decrease our empathy for those involved in the tragedies we see unfolding. We accept the higher levels and more frequent violent events as a part of our modern society, in other words we just blindly accept that the violence is here. That it cannot be changed. Apathy may produce depression in an individual but in the group it seems to create dangerous stagnation.
I think that as a group we could do more to limit the real time coverage of violent events to help stem the “drips” that come into our tub constantly without notice. Unfortunately our inaction to decrease this flow seems apathetic. Making a stronger push for our positive fighting mechanisms that we have in fact demonstrated could help us develop solutions to unwanted violent media exposure.
Rain Blohm, MS
WKPIC Doctoral Intern
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