Shine On

Can watching the news can make you sick? New research says yes

New research says that excessive news watching can lead to health problems. (Thinkstock)Watching the evening news can be a harrowing experience. Sometimes it seems like the world is rife with disaster, war, violence and nothing else, and the advent of 24-hour news networks means we can tune in anytime.

Many of us do consume hours of news a day, and now the results of a new study indicate that watching extensive coverage of violent images of war and disaster can have negative health impacts.

Researchers at the University of California at Irvine followed the viewing habits of American subjects before and after the events of 9/11, and found that those who watched more than four hours a day of 9/11 and Iraq War-related coverage were more likely to report both acute and post-traumatic stress symptoms over time. They were also more likely to report other health problems two to three years later, reports The Daily Mail.

Does this mean we should censor the content of television news?

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Study author Roxane Cohen Silver is quick to caution against this.

"I would not advocate restricting nor censoring war images for the psychological well-being of the public," says Silver. "Instead, I think it's important for people to be aware that there is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to graphic images of horror."

Jonathan Freedman, a University of Toronto psychology professor, is also not alarmed by Silver's findings.

"I don't think people should be very concerned about this study," he says. "Anyone who spends four hours a day watching 9/11 coverage is probably a pretty obsessed person to begin with."

He says that war is a grim reality, and the fact that people will watch and become upset by these types of events is natural.

"You could argue that we don't have enough images of the war in Syria," says Freedman, referring to the relatively minimal coverage of the Syrian conflict.

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James Compton, a professor at the University of Western Ontario's faculty of information and media studies, suggests that news media need to be careful not to sanitize war. He warns against the sensoring or manipulation of images of war.

"All too often, governments construct self-serving dramatic narratives about 'our heroes' in uniform versus some evil other."

He references how during the invasion of Iraq, embedded reporters often reproduced stories favorable to the American military.

"The 'Shock and Awe' campaign that preceded the invasion was covered by broadcasters as a spectacular show accompanied by colour commentary from retired officers who in some instances actually downplayed the fact that Iraqi civilians were dying."

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Andrew Piper, a professor of literature and media studies at McGill University, sees the issue from a slightly different perspective.

"Unlike something we read, an image can 'haunt' us more than words because it remains so singular in minds," says Piper. "We've all had experiences of haunting images and if we are exposed to too many over time, then yes, it makes perfect sense that this will have serious psychological implications."

He says that although these types of images do serve a social function, "the damage they do to us in terms of their after-effects seems to me to outweigh the limited effects of their creating some larger sense of moral urgency around a problem."

In regards to policy, Piper suggests a two-pronged solution.

"The media does need to consider the quantity and graphicness of violent images that they disseminate and the public needs to be educated to limit their interaction with them."

In other words, let the media be thoughtful of what they air, and let the public decide when to turn it off.

Watch the video below about the health of former residents in an asbestos mining town, Cassiar, B.C.

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