Breaking news…This just in…We have helicopters live at the scene…hearing those few words instantly snaps your attention away from whatever you were doing. Your heart stops for a second. “What happened? Where?” You wait, listening. Even adults, who have a much richer context for processing news than children do, can show symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they watch live coverage of a traumatic event. But, kids are especially prone to this secondhand trauma.

While the negative effects of being exposed to someone else’s suffering has long been recognized for first responders and health care workers, only recently are professionals beginning to understand how watching tragedy unfold on television and through social media can impact viewers.

Media Coverage Amplifies Trauma

A study by University of California Irvine researchers, for example, found that six or more daily hours of exposure to media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings in the week afterward was linked to more acute stress than having been at or near the marathon.

“Social media has enabled violent stories and graphic images to be watched in unedited horrific detail. Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those directly experiencing them may impact on our daily lives,” says Dr. Pam Ramsden from the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Bradford.

It was this premise that drove Dr. Ramsden and her colleagues to do a clinical assessment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for people who had seen violent news events. They found that 22 percent of their participants were significantly affected by the events, even though they had no previous trauma and had only watched the trauma on social media. Those who watched the event most often and those with more outgoing personalities were the most affected.

Whether it’s wildfires raging, planes crashing, shooters running through the street, earthquakes crumbling apartment buildings—these images on repeat have even more pronounced consequences for children.“I’ve heard young children watching a trauma being replayed again and again on the news and asking, ‘Why does this person keep shooting?’ says Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD., professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine.

“When you repeatedly see images of a person with gruesome injuries after an event is over, it’s like the event continues and has its own presence in your life,” says E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing science at University of California Irvine. “Prolonged media exposure can turn what was an acute experience into a chronic form of stress,” she explains. And, young children especially don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand the same event is being replayed.

“We are all affected [when a mass tragedy strikes],” says Dr. Kaslow. “Sometimes you can’t get away from some of these stories. “The media can get every angle, and see how horrible [these traumas] are firsthand,” Dr. Kaslow says. “Before 9/11, most kids didn’t know what rubble was. But now it’s a part of their vocabulary.” The same is true for bomb, tsunami, active shooter, terrorist.

Help Your Kids Cope

Given the reality of violence in the news and on social media, some parents try to avoid the media altogether. But many experts agree that recognizing the problem, rather than sweeping it away, is a good first step. Here are some other things you can do:

  1. Emphasize their safety. Part of what is terrifying for children seeing violent or traumatic events on television is it makes them question their own safety. Reassure them that many people are around to protect them. Depending on what the news is, you can be specific with how they’re being protected. Also, let them know that loved ones that they don’t see every day are okay.
  2. Watch with them. One of the best ways to support children is to watch the news with them and talk about it. This gives kids a chance to ask questions and gives parents a chance to assess what their kids are thinking.
  3. Look for the helpers. Dr. Kaslow also says that one way to make such difficult information more manageable is by talking about some of the positive stories and strengths that have blossomed out of the tragedies. In the wise words of Fred (aka Mister) Roger’s mother, “Always look for the helpers. There’s always someone who is trying to help.”
  4. Put things in perspective. For older kids, you can use these tragedies as a reminder that life is short and how much you love them.
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Trauma Symptom Checklist For Children

Children show symptoms that are slightly different from adults. Read more on PTSD here.

  • Severe separation anxiety – fear of being separated from their parents
  • Somber play that showcases a revival of the traumatic events
  • Phobias unrelated to the traumatic event (e.g., fear of monsters)
  • Acting out the traumatic experience through drawings, social play, or stories
  • Loss of previously acquired skills (e.g., regression in toilet training)
  • Sleep problems and nightmares not related to the event
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Aches and pains that have no apparent cause

When to See a Professional

For parents, children, or anyone else who is having trouble coping with tragic stories and is feeling overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, or hopeless, it’s important to seek professional help. If you or your child is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741 to connect for free with a crisis counselor through Crisis Text Line.

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Last Updated: Aug 17, 2020