Grief and LossMental HealthScience

Televised Terror: What is the Effect on Children?

Welcome to “This Week in Parenting Research”, a bimonthly column where I try to find a study that may be of interest to parents. After the terrible tragedy in Orlando last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to explain random acts of violence or terrorism to my son. He’s in preschool at the moment, still sheltered from most news reports and unable to read headlines on newspapers, but I know that won’t last for much longer. As we try to raise him in a world with 24-7 access to news and images of terrible events, I had to wonder if there was any research in to how kids processed this sort of information.

That line of questioning led me to a paper published in March of 2016 from the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics called “Mental and Emotional Health of Children Exposed to News Media of Threats and Acts of Terrorism: The Cumulative and Pervasive Effects“, which I found helpful. It’s an analysis of the current research in to the effects of the media’s coverage of terrorism and extreme violence on children. I thought it would be a good paper to take a look at because while most children in the US are never directly the victims of terrorism, all of them will end up seeing news reports. While parents can’t protect our children from hearing about bad events, we can help them process the information. So let’s take a look, shall we?

Okay, so what was the authors goal?

First, this was not actually a study, but rather a review of current literature. The authors wanted to look at news media coverage of “extreme violence” or terrorism on children. They point out that while the effects of violence on children has been frequently studied in some media types (such as video games), there is less commentary on how children process violence when the events they are watching are real and on the news. The author’s goal is not to eliminate or even reduce media coverage, but to consider strategies for helping kids deal with what they are seeing.

Why is this a particular concern for children today?

The authors point to a few reasons for concern:

  1. Children have more access to more types of media than ever before, and thus may see more images of violence
  2. Previous research has indicated that children do not need direct exposure to violence or terrorism in order to suffer negative psychological consequences, news media images can produce these feelings as well
  3. Children’s sense of “spaciality” is not as well developed as adults. In other words, children have a harder time placing acts of violence in time or space. Thus a terrorist bombing in Lebanon may feel just as real to them as one in their own region.
  4. Children have less emotional self-regulation than adults do. When children’s stress response is activated, they have a harder time returning to baseline.

Are some children more vulnerable than others?

The authors identified two types of children who might be particularly vulnerable to reports of violence:

  1. Children under the age of ten
  2. Children who have already been exposed directly to violence or other trauma

So what should we do?

Given how (relatively) recent the ubiquity of the internet is, we don’t actually have great long term data on this. However, the authors do reach a few conclusions and offer a few suggestions:

  1. Recognize that children may be upset by events they see, even if they can’t communicate this
  2. Remember children’s limited resources for processing information, particularly with young children
  3. Children who are already vulnerable should be particularly watched for negative affects of further exposure
  4. Pictures/visuals seem particularly powerful
  5. There is likely a dose response for graphic images, and other studies have found that watching more television coverage is correlated with an increased likelihood of developing PTSD type symptoms

This set of recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics was included, and had a lot of helpful guidance as well, though it generally referenced children more directly exposed to trauma:

  1. Gruesome or disturbing details are likely to effect children negatively, particularly young children
  2. Younger children will be more concerned about consequences of the event, older children will want to know why it happened
  3. Young children may express their anxiety through their play, such as drawing pictures with violent or anxious themes
  4. Boys tend to show more behavioral problems than girls in response to violent events, girls show more anxiety
  5. Children still experiencing behavior changes or noticeable anxiety about the event after one month are particularly vulnerable to long term problems

Just like in adults of course, some level of reaction immediately after an event is normal and not cause for concern….though of course like anyone kids can use support.

What’s the conclusion?

This paper was a pretty interesting round up of studies. Based on the conclusions and suggestions, I will definitely work to limit the number of images my son sees of violent events. While kids may need their parents to talk through events and answer questions, it’s clear that more details are not always better. Pictures in particular seem to stick with kids, and gratuitously gruesome details also seem less than helpful.

I took a look at some other studies, and found that the tendency of these events to exacerbate other pre-existing trauma seems particularly bad. Anyone who interacts with children should probably be aware of this, and be watching for signs of behavior problems. While some problems or symptoms immediately post-event are quite normal, this should start to fade. The one month mark seemed like a good rule of thumb for when symptoms should have resolved by….though of course you can and should seek help for serious problems before then.

While overall this is not a fun topic to think about or discuss, the push to review the literature and provide parents with recommendations is one I fully endorse.

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Bethany is a perpetual student who just won't stop taking classes. She's gone from engineering to psych and family systems to applied statistics, and is really fascinated by how people feel about numbers. She blogs about this over at Graph Paper Diaries, and experimenting with contingency tables at Two Ways to Be Wrong.

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