Is television traumatic? Study describes impact of post-9/11 media exposure to dreams

April 13, 2007

BOSTON - Dream journals being kept by students in a college psychology class have provided researchers with a unique look at how people experienced the events of 9/11, including the influence that television coverage of the World Trade Center attacks had on people's levels of stress.

Reported in the April 2007 issue of the journal Psychological Science, the study data finds that for every hour of television viewed on Sept. 11 - with some students reporting in excess of 13 hours watched - levels of stress, as indicated by dream content, increased significantly. In addition, the study found that time spent talking with family and friends helped individuals to better process the day's horrific events.

"We had not set out to conduct a scientific study of TV viewing and trauma," says lead author Ruth Propper, PhD, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. "But it so happened that students enrolled in one of my courses during the fall 2001 semester were already in the process of keeping dream journals on a nightly basis. As the events of 9/11 were unfolding, I realized there was a valuable opportunity to find out what impact both media coverage and social interactions were having on individuals throughout the course of this tragedy."

So, on September 12, Propper distributed a questionnaire to her students asking them to report on their activities of the day before, including the amount of TV they had watched, the amount of radio they had listened to, and the amount of time they had spent talking about the experience with family and friends.

"What distinguishes these findings is that they occurred in 'real-time,'" adds coauthor Robert Stickgold, PhD, a sleep researcher in the Division of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Because we have the students' pre-9/11 dreams with which to compare, we can draw more reliable conclusions about our post-9/11 findings."

Dreams are a reflection of the way the mind is processing and sorting the day's events, and depending on a person's state of mind, will contain different images. For the purposes of this study, the authors separated dream content into four categories: dreams containing specific references to 9/11 (smoke, explosions, police, box cutters, etc.); dreams with generalized threatening content (which made people fearful even though they didn't contain specific references to 9/11); dreams containing broadly related themes related to 9/11 (for example, disasters in general, rather than the 9/11 disaster specifically); and, dreams with strong negative emotional content (which elicited general feelings of anger, fear, or sadness).

"People's dreams can function as a measure of how much distress they are feeling and how well or poorly they are coping," says Stickgold. "If, in your dreams, you are still seeing specific traumatic images - buildings collapsing, fire burning, people jumping - then it means that these stressful events are not being adequately processed. But, if you're seeing tangential events in your dreams - for example, a hurricane rather than the specific 9/11 images - it indicates that your brain is trying to make sense of the trauma and that you are coping successfully."

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that in the days and weeks following the attacks the students' dreams were twice as likely to contain at least one of the four "content features" as they had prior to 9/11. But, says Propper, "Our next question was, 'Is there an explanation for why some individuals' dreams contained specific images of 9/11 and others didn't?'"

So, the authors turned to the questionnaires.

The questionnaire responses showed that throughout the day of Sept. 11, students spent between 0 and 2.5 hours listening to the radio. They spent between one and 12 hours - an average of 5.9 hours - talking about the events with family and friends. And they spent between 1.5 and 13 hours watching television news coverage of the attacks, an average of 6.5 hours.

"When we compared these responses with the dream journal entries, we discovered that for each hour of TV viewing a subject reported, there was a statistically significant six percent increase in the proportion of the dreams containing a specific reference to the attacks," says Propper. Among the individuals who watched less than three hours of television there were no specific references at all.

At the same time, the authors found that the greater the amount of time students spent talking about the 9/11 events with family and friends, the greater the likelihood their dreams contained "thematic" images, rather than specific images. "This suggests that by talking through traumatic events, perhaps you are better able to get past the trauma and to integrate it into the broader framework of your life," explains Propper.

"Repeated viewing of horrific images may result in increased levels of stress and trauma in the general population," the authors write in their conclusion. "[And] insofar as watching television replaces talking with others about such events, these undesired consequences may be amplified. In light of these findings, news broadcasters might consider whether repetitious broadcasting of traumatic images is actually in keeping with their goal of serving the public. The public, in turn, might consider the benefits of talking about traumatic events with friends and family."
In addition to Propper and Stickgold, coauthors include Merrimack College student Raeann Keeley, and Stephen D. Christman, PhD, of the University of Toledo in Ohio.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a patient care, research and teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and ranks third in National Institutes of Health funding among independent hospitals nationwide. BIDMC is clinically affiliated with the Joslin Diabetes Center and is a research partner of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox. For more information, visit

Merrimack College is a selective, independent four-year Catholic college offering liberal arts, business, science, and engineering programs within a residential setting. Merrimack's distinguished faculty members teach a talented student body in a learning environment vigorously committed to the transforming values and benefits of the liberal arts. In the Augustinian tradition, Merrimack's community embraces scholarship, service to others, and provides students with opportunities to develop intellectually, spiritually, socially, and ethically.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

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