In the days after news of traumatic events breaks, journalists often turn to various experts for information on how to explain these events to children who learn about them through the media. ISTSS members are likely to be asked for their advice not only by journalists, but by clients, childcare and school professionals, and friends. All of us will have some helpful information to share.
What follows is a brief selective review of research on trauma-related media coverage. When we explain the research behind our advice we not only help people cope, but also to understand the scientific basis for our answers.
Parents are now more likely to limit their young children’s exposure to trauma-related media coverage (Schuster, et al.). In a representative sample of U.S. children, parents report that 36 percent of preschool children saw no TV coverage of the 9/11 attacks, 66 percent saw no coverage of child kidnappings in the summer of 2002, and 69 percent saw no coverage of the 2002 DC sniper attacks. Most of those who did see coverage reported seeing it 10 or fewer times. These numbers were lower than for older age groups. Parents are often advised to limit young children’s exposure and it appears they take this message to heart.
Parents need to be aware of the influence they have on their children’s reactions. In an innovative experimental study, Comer and colleagues (Comer, Furr, Beidas, Weiner, & Kendall, 2008) trained mothers to talk with their children about terrorism-related TV. Mothers were taught to monitor their own level of anxiety, to talk about the low probability of a terrorist attack affecting the child personally, and to reward thoughts that reflected healthy coping. Mothers then watched and discussed a short news clip about terrorism with their child. Other mothers were asked to watch and discuss the clip in the way they usually would. The intervention benefited both mothers and children. After the discussions, children of the trained mothers reported a lower likelihood of being the victim of a terrorist attack. Kids are affected by their parents’ thoughts and feelings, and parents can choose to act in ways that benefit both themselves and their children.
Older Children and Teens
While parents are most concerned about young children, there is evidence among older children that tweens and young teens may experience the most distress of all children. In a representative survey of U.S. households, the average age of the child in the household reported to be most distressed was 11 years (Schlenger et al., 2002). In a separate survey of U.S. children, youth aged 10 to 13 were the most distressed (Becker-Blease, Finkelhor, & Turner, 2008). Interestingly, among this age group only, media exposure was not related to distress. Those who reported no exposure were equally as distressed as children who reported heavy exposure.
One possible reason is that adults underestimate how much youth of this age find out about events through peers or overhearing adult conversations, and therefore do not have the same kinds of conversations they have with older teens who are perceived as more ready to talk. It is also possible that youth at this age understand enough to develop more complex concerns than younger children, but lack the cognitive ability to put those fears in perspective the way older teens can.
Children who have a history of adversity (Becker-Blease et al., 2008) or prior PTSD symptoms (Weems, Scott, Banks, & Graham, 2012) have been shown to react negatively to higher levels of media exposure. Vulnerable youth may benefit when adults help limit their media exposure and discuss what media they do see with them.
Most research is retrospective, and does not allow the researcher to rule out the possibility that more vulnerable people watch more trauma-related media, resulting in a spurious correlation between exposure and distress. Two studies suggest that that media exposure has negative effects, even controlling for other relevant factors.
In one experimental study, adults were randomly assigned to view terrorism-related media or a news story on another topic. Those who viewed the terrorism media reported more anxiety than those in the control group (Sloan, 2000).
Another recent prospective study provides some additional evidence that too much media coverage can be harmful for adults (Silver, forthcoming, as described in American Psychological Science, 2012). In this study, adults were surveyed about mental health before 9/11, their media exposure and immediate response to 9/11 and Iraq war coverage, and their well-being over the next 3 years. Controlling for prior mental health, demographics, and trauma exposure, those who watched 4 or more hours of TV coverage of 9/11 and the Iraq war experienced more distress during the events than those who watched fewer than 4 hours, and continued to report more distress during the years after the events.
Questions That Remain
Exactly how much media and what kind of media is harmful? Several studies show a dose-response relationship in which more media coverage is associated with more distress. It is not clear, however, how many minutes or hours is too much for the average person, or for a vulnerable person. The type of media likely also matters. Stories about the response of helping professionals and resilience may have different effects than stories that focus on the distress of those most closely affected.
If and when is media exposure helpful? Following 9/11, exposure to media was associated with distress, and distress was associated with checking on family members, obtaining supplies, and volunteering (Schuster et al., 2001). We have limited information on how distress might motivate helpful behavior. It is possible that media accounts of helping behavior and resilience could be beneficial.
New media. Most research is based on television. More research is needed on new media, including social media. For now, parents should be reminded that their children may consume a variety of images, videos, and reactions posted on social media sites through their own and their friends’ mobile devices. With media all around us, the advice of completely shielding children from all coverage may be impractical and children may need more help regulating their own exposure in and outside the home.
For more information
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has authoritative and up-to-date handouts for a wide range of audiences (e. g. professionals, parents, school personnel, journalists).
The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma is a global network of journalists, journalism educators and health professionals dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy. The Center also addresses the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism and is involved in the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) annual meeting activities.
Becker-Blease, K. A., Finkelhor, D., & Turner, H. (2008). Media exposure predicts children's reactions to crime and terrorism. [doi:10.1080/15299730802048652]. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 9(2), 225-248. doi: 10.1080/15299730802048652
Comer, J. S., Furr, J. M., Beidas, R. S., Weiner, C. L., & Kendall, P. C. (2008). Children and terrorism-related news: Training parents in coping and media literacy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(4), 568-578. doi: 10.1037/0022-006x.76.4.568
Schlenger, W. E., Caddell, J. M., Ebert, L., Jordan, B. K., Rourke, K. M., Wilson, D., . . . Kulka, R. A. (2002). Psychological reactions to terrorist attacks: Findings from the national study of Americans' reactions to September 11. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 288(5), 581-588. doi: 10.1001/jama.288.5.581
Schuster, M. A., Stein, B. D., Jaycox, L. H., Collins, R. L., Marshall, G. N., Elliott, M. N., . . . Berry, S. H. (2001). A national survey of stress reactions after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The New England Journal of Medicine, 345(20), 1507-1512. doi: 10.1056/nejm200111153452024
Association for Psychological Science (2012). Repeated Exposure to Media Images of Traumatic Events May Be Harmful to Mental and Physical Health. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/repeated-exposure-to-media-images-of-traumatic-events-may-be-harmful-to-mental-and-physical-health.html.
Sloan, M. (2000). Response to media coverage of terrorism. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 44, 508-522
Weems, C. F., Scott, B. G., Banks, D. M., & Graham, R. A. (2012). Is TV Traumatic for All Youths? The Role of Preexisting Posttraumatic-Stress Symptoms in the Link Between Disaster Coverage and Stress. Psychological Science, 23(11), 1293-1297. doi: 10.1177/0956797612446952
Kathy Becker-Blease is an Assistant Professor in the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. Her research interests include teaching about trauma, ethical trauma research, and developmental traumatology.