David McNew Getty Images News

Watching All That Footage Of Mass Shootings Might Be Giving Us PTSD Symptoms

People can develop "apprehension, nightmares, hyper-vigilance and insomnia from repeated exposure to these events," one expert said.

President Obama isn't the only one shedding tears and choking up about the 30,000 Americans killed by gun violence every year.

The unrelenting scroll of news coverage of the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Charleston, North Carolina and Colorado Springs might be taking a psychological toll on all of us.

People "can develop symptoms like anxiety, fear, apprehension, nightmares, hyper-vigilance and insomnia from repeated exposure to these events," Dr. Russell Jones, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech told MTV News about the loss of control and worry many might be feeling following daily exposure to news about gun violence.

Jones, who has done research on the stress and trauma caused by incidents such as the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, said studies have shown that only a certain percentage (8-15 percent) of people are likely to develop these kind of symptoms, but those who've had previous exposure to such events or who've viewed coverage of them over and over (or who have a previous psychiatric history) are at greater risk.

With a reported 330 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015, Merritt Schreiber, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine, told the AP that the cumulative effect of news about incidents at movie theaters, hospitals, offices and elementary schools has impacted "emergency personnel, relatives and other loved ones close and far," and, in fact, had an "impact on all of us."

MTV News spoke to a variety of experts about the effects of those ubiquitous images and reports and whether they may be leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-like symptoms in Americans who don't have direct ties to the survivors or those killed in the incidents.

Stephen Ehlers Moment Mobile

Families visit a memorial for victims of the 2014 Marysville Pilchuck High School shooting.
"Trauma By Television"

Mindy Mechanic, a psychology professor at California State, Fullerton, said she and her colleagues sometimes refer to a phenomenon they call "trauma by television" to describe how 24-hour news and social media reports on gun violence affect us. "People are traumatized indirectly or vicariously by repeated exposure to traumatic content, especially on TV where it is very visual and graphic," Mechanic told MTV News. "There's a different impact when we see the same images over and over."

Mechanic, who studies the impact of disasters and family violence, said she's heard anecdotes of people who now nervously scan the room for exits when entering movie theaters due to a hyper-vigilance about potential threats. "The world we live in is very different from the one I grew up in," she said.

"I didn't grow up where we had to go through metal detectors at school and there was this need to be vigilant all the time. The idea that we live in a harmful and dangerous place changes the way we think about our world. Instead of thinking it is safe and our families are safe and we can trust people, you think, 'people can't be trusted and they're out to harm you.'"

Those nagging thoughts about potential harm become more common the more we are exposed to such violent events, either directly or indirectly.

Joe Raedle Getty Images News

A vigil for the victims of the San Bernardino shooting.
How To Talk To Children And Teens About Their Fears

Experts also said repeated exposure to violent events can lead to a state of underlying fear even in grade school children, who've become used to "kill drills" and active shooter lockdown exercises that keep them in an heightened state of alert in classrooms that should be a safe space.

"It's important to minimize children's exposure [to traumatic images] and contextualize it for them so they feel safe and assured ... to tell them that while this is terrible, it's a rare event and while they need to believe they are safe they should also always be aware," Mechanic said of school-age children. "Anything can happen, not just because people are bad, but because life is unpredictable."

Though Mechanic said the body of research on how exposure to images of gun violence affects children has slowly been accumulating since the September 11 terror attacks, there is not yet a deep well of data on the topic.


Victims of gun violence speak at U.S. Capitol on second anniversary of Sandy Hook massacre.
One of the key issues when discussing how gun violence imagery affects children and teens is differentiating between being upset and trauma, according to Dr. Steven Marans, a professor of psychiatry and director of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence/Childhood Violent Trauma Center at the Yale Child Study Center. Marans told MTV News that there is also a wide gulf between how adults should approach these topics with children and discussing them with high school and college-age young adults.

"For very young children there's more of an impact when they see their parents distracted and sitting in front of the TV or extremely upset," he said. "It's more of a source of disruption for younger children than the event itself." Whether it's constantly checking news feeds on phones or tablets or just letting the TV run in the background, Marans said endlessly watching headlines is understandable because we're trying to wrap our heads around something that's so out of the norm, but that's also the problem.

"Repeated exposure doesn't fill in new information and for those most affected it perpetuates a vicious cycle of trying to win mastery by watching more while triggering the very thing that makes us feel helpless," he said. For adolescents especially, the reaction may manifest as morbid jokes made to ease underlying anxiety and "maintain a healthy adolescent stance -- I'm not little, I'm big."

Marans said the kids who are most vulnerable to traumatic reactions are those whose worst fears become generalized from their personal experiences to the broader world. "It's no surprise that kids who are exposed to violence on a regular basis are the ones who are at the greatest risk for failure in school and an inability to sustain trusting relationships," he said. "They may turn to violence or anti-social behavior to grain a feeling of being strong in the face of feeling so small and vulnerable."

Regardless of age, the good news, according to Jones, is that even if people develop such symptoms, the presence of a strong social support system of daily, friends and community can help them weather the storm better than those who have to go it alone.

"Individuals who are engaged in active, positive coping strategies do better as well," he said.