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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Psychological Implications of Indirect Media Exposure to Collective Traumas

  • Author(s): Thompson, Rebecca Robin
  • Advisor(s): Silver, Roxane Cohen
  • et al.

The dissertation examines the impact of indirect media exposure to stressful life events. Prior research suggests that exposure to trauma-related media content is associated with negative mental health outcomes. This relationship is further explored in three studies. Study 1 assesses how prior acute stress responses and media consumption influence subsequent psychological responses to a public health crisis, more specifically, the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Psychological distress, functional impairment, and worry about the Ebola crisis were measured in a nationally representative sample; the relationships of these variables with media exposure to the crisis were assessed. Results suggest that individuals with higher Boston Marathon bombing (BMB)-related acute stress and who consumed more Ebola-related media were later more worried about contracting Ebola. Study 2 assesses whether prior life events, prior media exposure and responses to events, and fears of future events may prospectively predict consumption of trauma-related media in the future and acute stress responses. Exposure and responses to the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre (PNM) were assessed in the same representative national sample as was utilized in Study 1. Path analyses revealed that media exposure to the BMB was associated with posttraumatic stress symptoms six months later, which was in turn associated with worry about future events, which predicted hours of media exposure and acute stress responses to the PNM. Additionally, BMB-related media exposure indirectly predicted PNM-related acute stress through BMB posttraumatic stress symptoms, worry about future events, and PNM-related media exposure. Study 3 explores the role of anticipated posttraumatic stress as a mediator of the relationship between media exposure to collective trauma and mental health outcomes in the context of a natural disaster. A probability sample of adults in Florida was recruited and assessed in the days prior to Hurricane Irma’s landfall, then reassessed approximately one month later (N=1,427). Path analyses revealed that media exposure to the hurricane partially mediated the relationship between anticipated PTS responses and subsequent PTS, general distress, anger, functional impairment, and worry, controlling for demographics and hurricane exposure. Implications for the media, mental health professionals, and public health across all three studies are discussed.

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