The tragic events that unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, shook not only the small community of Newtown, Conn., but the entire country.
A year has passed since 28 people, including shooter Adam Lanza and his mother, lost their lives following the Sandy Hook shooting, but stress stemming from the incident continues to add up for people directly and indirectly affected by this tragedy.
Immediate coverage surrounding the Sandy Hook shooting was so overwhelming it would have been impossible to avoid. Every newsstand, television program, and radio station seemed to be covering some new dreadful turn in the story that only sparked more feelings of despair with the public. While much of the initial public debate centered on gun control, perhaps the more important issue is what effect all the exposure to this event could have on the mental and emotional framework of both Newton residents and the nation at large.
A recent study offers a somewhat frightening perspective: intense overexposure to media coverage of traumatic events can be as seriously dangerous as exposure to the events themselves. A research team led by E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing science at University of California, Irvine, focused on media coverage tied to April 15, 2013’s Boston Marathon bombings.
“We suspect that there's something about repeated exposure to violent images or sounds that keeps traumatic events alive and can prolong the stress response in vulnerable people,” Holman explained in a statement. “There is mounting evidence that live and video images of traumatic events can trigger flashbacks and encourage fear conditioning. If repeatedly viewing traumatic images reactivates fear or threat responses in the brain and promotes rumination, there could be serious health consequences."
Holman and her colleagues from UC Irvine tracked the behavior of 4,675 adults for two to four weeks following the 2013 Boston Marathon. The research team analyzed behavioral responses to the bombings, direct exposure to the event, indirect exposure via TV, social media, print or radio, prior exposure through a similar devastating event, and acute stress symptoms, such as disturbing thoughts pertaining to the event, attempts to avoid discussing the event, feeling on the edge or detached from victims and the event itself.
Individuals who were exposed to over six hours of media coverage related to the Boston Marathon bombings each day were nine times more likely to report high levels of acute stress compared to people who were exposed to around one hour a day.
"We were very surprised at the degree to which repeated media exposure was so strongly associated with acute stress symptoms," Holman added. "When you repeatedly see images of a person with gruesome injuries after an event is over, it's like the event continues and has its own presence in your life. Prolonged media exposure can turn what was an acute experience into a chronic form of stress. People may not realize how stressful these media-based exposures are. Looking at these images over and over again is not productive and may be harmful."
That isn’t to understate the experience of the family, friends, and neighbors of those touched directly by the Sandy Hook shooting. A majority of health care professionals believe the children involved in the tragedy, and even some adults, will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD refers to a severe mental health condition that is caused by a traumatic event such as war, an assault, or a brush with death. According to the National Center for PTSD, three percent to 15 percent of girls and one percent to six percent of boys who witness a traumatic event will also develop PTSD.
Although life in Newtown may never return to what it was like on Dec. 13, 2012, friends and family of the people close to the Sandy Hook shooting are in the process of putting the incident behind them and looking forward to a brighter future. In a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood movie, the Newtown High School football team capped off an impressive 12-1 season with a trip to Connecticut’s Class LL state championship quarterfinals. Players donned a “26” logo on their jerseys throughout the season in memory of the 20 children and six teachers who lost their lives. “We like to think we put a smile on someone’s face every time we get a win,” running back Cooper Gold told FoxNews.
Of course, while life must move on, the last thing Sandy Hook families want is for people to forget about the lives that were lost. The website My Sandy Hook Family was set up to commemorate the children and teachers who did not make it out of the elementary school that day. The site lists the names of all 26 students and faculty with links to a photo and a description of what made each one special. “We hope to offer an opportunity to communicate with our families and honor our loved ones, while at the same time respecting each family’s individual journey and unique experiences,” reads the site’s mission statement.
With Sandy Hook’s one-year anniversary right around the corner, politicians and parents alike have asked reporters and camera crews to steer clear of Newtown. The community is hoping to avoid the media circus that ensued last year as radio and TV stations scrambled to get the facts. Some of the country’s largest media outlets including USA Today, CNN, ABC, and NBC have promised not to be in attendance.