If the Vietnam war era was said to have changed the face of television news — bringing battles and bodies into kitchens and living rooms nationwide — it can be argued that cable television news has indelibly altered the rest of the media’s body.
The one watershed moment we will forever look to is Sept. 11. It was a moment where the whole world was literally watching as the epic tragedy unfolded.
Life has gone on in the United States and around the world since — as have wars, catastrophic weather events and a steady stream of unthinkable crimes. Who needs horror movies when there are so many horrifying examples of humanity at its worst on the news, which is not just at 6 and 11 but now any time of day?
“We are more affected by these current events than we want to acknowledge. We are in denial about how much 9/11 is still affecting us. But the memory of this tragedy has left indelible scars,” notes Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist who is based in Los Angeles and is a regular presence as a media expert on various cable and network news programs.
She adds: “Media violence — from TV news to dramas and especially violent video games — are causing people to become more violent in their personal lives. Not everyone will be propelled to commit murder, but they may well be propelled into committing road rage or domestic violence.”
And there is research as backup. “Countless studies have shown for decades,” she adds, “that the more media violence a person consumes, the more aggressive they will become.”
While censorship is arguably not a good thing, some psychologists point out that enough really is enough when it comes to how much blood, gore, guts and tragedy we expose ourselves to.
But, as psychologist Jeffrey C. Singer, based in Parsippany, N.J., points out, the impact of violence stems from how different individuals perceive it. He cites The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a thought-provoking book by Harvard psychologist Dr. Steven Pinker, that argues our era, based on historical evidence, may actually be one of the least violent times in mankind’s history.
“It is pretty clear that with social media and cable that it is easy to get overloaded and bombarded with upsetting images, but you have to let your own subjective well-being be your guide,” says Singer.
“You need to monitor” what you watch “and be honest about how it is affecting you.” Singer adds that constantly revisiting a tragedy, no matter how relevant it still may be, won’t do anybody any good. He cites the ongoing discourse with Sept. 11 as “a morbid fascination with witnessing a nightmare come true.”
Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who is the parenting and teen columnist for Psychology Today and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, disagrees with the conclusions drawn in Pinker’s book. Greenberg, who has been tapped to provide insights for the Associated Press on the Cleveland kidnappings and the Boston Marathon bombings, and volunteered to aid the residents of Newtown, Conn., says she believes adults should not only limit and re-evaluate their exposure to hard news, but address exposure to violence every day with their children.
“When I was growing up, our parents used to talk to us about strangers, and those were warnings we got to ensure we would make the correct judgment,” recalls Greenberg. “Today, however, we’re dealing with a much more violent society, and we really need to teach our kids to be more vigilant, like in other countries, such as Israel, where kids are dealing with traumatic events all the time.”
What to do? “We should not only teach our kids to be more vigilant but also look out for one another instead of something called ‘the bystander effect,’ where people look away when bad things are happening instead of getting involved and helping out.”
“It is one thing when people tune in to find out what is going on in the world, but when people become obsessed with the stories is another,” she says of oversaturated news coverage of horrific events.
“The kids who are the most anxious are the ones who have had too much exposure to these stories.”
Steering one’s children correctly in the era of the 24-hour news cycle is critical, but as Philadelphia life coach Irina Baranov points out, “The more violence we witness — and we have witnessed quite a bit in our lifetime — the more it becomes normalized and accepted.”