When Real Disasters on TV Scare Kids

TV disaster coverage and PTSD in kids linked

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) The Twin Towers falling. Raging wildfires. Families wading through flooded waters. These images might show important news, but disaster coverage makes an impression on little minds.

Past research has shown that media disaster coverage contributes to post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in kids.

But a new study offers more information about the link. Kids are most affected when they already have symptoms of PTSD.

"Monitor your child's media exposure."

The study, led by Carl F. Weems, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at the University of New Orleans, aimed to better understand the relationship between TV disaster coverage and children's symptoms of traumatic stress.

Dr. Weems and his colleagues followed 141 children who experienced both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav.

The children were all in grades 4 through 8 when the study began, and all the data was collected at school through a classroom curriculum program.

The school was in a neighborhood that had severe damage and flooding after Katrina. The researchers assessed the children's levels of PTSD symptoms 2 years and 2.5 years after Katrina.

Then, six months after the second assessment, Gustav hit, and the children's symptoms were evaluated again a month after the second hurricane.

More than half the children had watched a good amount of the coverage about Gustav. A quarter (25 percent) said they had watched "a lot" of TV coverage on Gustav, and 31 percent said they saw "a whole lot" of the coverage.

Also during the second assessment, the researchers asked the children whether they thought they would get hurt during Gustav and how scared they were during the hurricane.

The researchers found that the more coverage children watched of the second hurricane, the more likely it was that they had symptoms (or more severe symptoms) of PTSD.

This result matches past research and held true even when the researchers took into account the children's symptoms before Gustav. So exposure to excessive TV coverage of the storm did influence the children's PTSD symptoms.

However, when the researchers did account for the children's symptoms beforehand, the researchers found that the link between the disaster coverage and the children's symptoms was stronger in children who had more PTSD symptoms before Gustav.

The link between disaster coverage and PTSD symptoms was also stronger for children who had more fear that Gustav would hurt them .

In other words, lots of disaster coverage on TV can contribute to children having PTSD symptoms. But kids who already have some PTSD symptoms or are especially scared of the disaster appeared to be even more deeply affected by the TV coverage of the disaster.

"The negative effect of watching a large amount of media coverage of a disaster is greatest for those youths who have preexisting difficulties," the authors wrote.

The study's findings are not surprising to Colorado clinical social worker LuAnn Pierce, who said that traumatic memories can make anyone – and especially children – more susceptible to re-traumatization.

"Once a person is traumatized and specific triggers are established, those triggers are easily activated by similar events or situations," Pierce told dailyRx News. "Exposure to the the triggering memories, which are often subtle and not easily paired with the initial trauma, sets in motion a series of chemical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral events that are often as difficult to cope with as the original stressor."

She said that it's important for adults to monitor how children watch the news and how they discuss world events and natural disasters with children.

"While we can't stop these events, we can buffer the impact of the events on our kids by using good judgment and exercising parental control," Pierce said. "Don't be afraid to step in and redirect their attention to something less stimulating – preferably to something unrelated and soothing."

The study was published October 15 in the journal Psychological Science. Information on funding was unavailable, but the authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 9, 2012
Last Updated:
November 14, 2012