In the weeks following 9/11, I saw the World Trade Towers fall dozens, if not hundreds, of times in televised replays. The effect on my sleep was immediate. I slept restlessly, had nightmares, woke frequently, and felt anxiety. I had several friends/clients in the Towers that day. While the nightmares faded over time, the other effects did not. For the better part of a decade, I woke up at least once virtually every night.
Somehow a pattern had formed. I saw a sleep doctor. He told me to stop watching TV before bedtime, that TV stimulated the brain when it needed to relax. But I wondered whether there was something more going on – whether the violence of those images was somehow still disturbing my sleep and whether others were similarly affected.
A 2011 New York Times article by Anemona Hartocollis, 10 Years and a Diagnosis Later, 9/11 Demons Haunt Thousands, confirmed my suspicions. The article discussed the impact of the event on people who had experienced it firsthand. The article chronicled a list of serious maladies ranging from chronic sleep disturbances and lung cancer to post-traumatic stress disorder. But could exposure to the event on television also cause sleep disorders?
A 2004 study called Television Images and Probable Posttraumatic Stress Disorder After September 11 by Jennifer Ahern, MPH; Sandro Galea, MD; Heidi Resnick, PhD; and David Vlahov, PhD, in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease showed that people who viewed more television images of the attacks in the seven days after 9/11 had a higher probability of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The authors wrote, “Television may merit consideration as a potential exposure to a traumatic event.”
Another study published in 2007 in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Following Media Exposure to Tragic Events: Impact of 9/11 on Children at Risk for Anxiety Disorders) found the amount of time children spent viewing 9/11 coverage on television predicted an increased risk of PTSD symptoms. The authors (Michael Otto, Aude Henin, Dina Hirshfeld-Becker, Mark Pollack, Joseph Biederman, and Jerold Rosenbaum of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School) conclude, “Media viewing of tragic events is sufficient to produce PTSD symptoms in vulnerable populations such as children.”
Outside of the context of a tragic event like 9/11, I began to wonder whether the general level of violence one sees on TV can affect sleep. Most studies have focused on how the medium itself stimulate the brain. But I found this study published In 2011 in The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics by Michelle M. Garrison, Kimberly Liekweg and Dimitri A. Christakis titled Media Use and Child Sleep: The Impact of Content, Timing, and Environment. The authors determined that media content and viewing time correlate significantly with children’s sleep quality.
The authors had 612 parents keep media diaries showing what, when, where and with whom their children watched TV for a week. They also correlated the diaries with a sleep questionnaire and found:
“Children with a bedroom television consumed more media and were more likely to have a sleep problem. In regression models, each additional hour of evening media use was associated with a significant increase in the sleep problem score (0.743 [95% confidence interval: 0.373–1.114]), as was daytime use with violent content (0.398 [95% confidence interval:0.121– 0.676]). There was a trend toward greater impact of daytime violent use in the context of a bedroom television (P .098) and in low-income children (P .07).”
The authors concluded that violent content and evening media use were associated with increased sleep problems. However, they observed no such effects with nonviolent daytime media use. To foster better sleep patterns, they advise parents to control their children’s watching of programs with violent content and to reduce evening media use.
These studies show sleep disturbances can be related to televised violence. They also raise some corollary questions, “What are the long term health consequences of constant exposure to images of violence? Does the rise in the use of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs correlate at all to increased viewing of violence through media?” A report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011, by Laura A. Pratt, Ph.D.; Debra J. Brody, M.P.H.; and Qiuping Gu, M.D., Ph.D., found that “From 1988–1994 through 2005–2008, the rate of antidepressant use in the United States among all ages increased nearly 400%.” To be clear, the report notes that the authors did not study specific causes for the increase, i.e., with media useage. But I can’t help but wonder what, if any, correlation there is. Numerous studies now show that people spend more time multitasking with media than sleeping.