March 27, 2003 -- It's important to keep up with what's going on in the news. But when is it time to turn the TV off?
On the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks -- and for many days thereafter -- Americans learned what it was to watch too much TV news. Some people even developed serious psychiatric problems from the trauma of it all. We wondered how much TV was too much. And we wondered how much our children should see. Experts warned us to limit viewing, and to keep track of what our kids were watching.
As the current war in Iraq stretches on, we are beginning to ask ourselves the same questions. Some of the answers are the same. But some things are different, says Paul Kettl, MD, professor of psychiatry at Penn State University's Hershey Medical Center and specialist on the psychological impact of TV disaster coverage.
"It's a matter of degree," Kettl tells WebMD. "It is certainly a good thing to know what is going on. But being glued to the TV is not good. People who spend all of their time watching TV news coverage can become more frightened, more withdrawn, and maybe even more depressed."
It can be like getting stuck in quicksand, agrees media expert Robert J. Thompson, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, N.Y. Thompson remembers watching the news coverage of the tragic Columbine school shooting hour after hour until he finally snapped out of it.
"Be careful -- if you're sitting in front of war coverage for three hours, ask yourself if this is really what you want to do," he tells WebMD. "There is a quicksand effect to this stuff. So be aware how much it is informing you and how much you are just wallowing in it. Wallowing is not good. It sets up a relationship with this coverage that might not be healthy."
Kettl's advice is to keep informed, but to watch no more than an hour of TV news each day. Even if you then turn TV off, there's one more thing to do.
"Remember there are people in your house not as politically sophisticated as you are -- your children," he says. "You should talk with them about what we are doing over there, and ask them what their concerns are. Ask your children what they are worried about, and address those concerns. And be sure to tell them someone will always be around to help them."
That brings up an interesting point, Thompson says. We certainly must protect children from graphic images they are not mature enough to handle. But when news organizations show only abstract images, he says, we lose touch with the real significance of what we are seeing on TV. War is, after all, traumatic.
"We have the most sanitized ways of covering news of anyplace else in the world," Thompson says. "The result is a sense of abstraction. We have no way to connect with what this really means. We are not getting the full picture. On the other hand, what if we did get it -- how would that affect the mental health of the nation? A heavy dose of really serious warfare could be really harmful to some viewers. That would be one of the costs of delivering journalism that intimately."
Thompson says that to a large degree, Americans already protect themselves from getting an overdose of war coverage. He points out that even on the first night of the current Gulf War, a rerun of a Friends episode drew more viewers than war coverage.
"The public has found its own psychic equilibrium," Thompson says. "We watch a little war, then ease our minds with entertainment. We taste a little bitter war and then have the cleansing sorbet of situation comedy."