While we are aware that experiencing disasters can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), new research has indicated that simply watching news coverage of disasters can raise anxiety and trigger responses in the brains of some children that can put them at risk of PTSD. These findings highlight how children do not need to be in harm’s way or even close to a disaster to be affected by it — exposure to media coverage of a disaster can have a substantial impact as well.
This latest research on the topic which utilises brain scans also explores why some children are more vulnerable to PTSD than others.
It is important for parents, caregivers, and society at large to understand these possible effects because, with climate change, researchers estimate that today’s children will face three times as many climate-related disasters as their grandparents. Together with the pervasiveness of social media and 24-hour news, this may also contribute to the possibility of PTSD given that children will have greater exposure to images of such disasters.
Previously, it was thought that the negative mental health effects of a disaster were directly related to how close the person was to the center of the event — the bull’s eye. Increasingly, however, studies are indicating that the negative mental health effects of disasters extend far beyond the immediate disaster area.
In the digital age, media content is designed to attract “clicks”. In other words, online content is created to attract viewers and keep them engaged. As a result of this, more graphic images and scenes are finding their way to the public via social media.
The association between media exposure and post-traumatic stress symptoms was strongest for those with a particular brain response in the amygdala, a brain area involved in processing fear and detecting potential threats. Earlier in the study, many of the same children who had displayed this had been particularly reactive when viewing fearful facial expressions. At the same time, their brain scans showed reduced activity in another region of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, thought to be involved in reducing emotional arousal. That brain activation profile marked vulnerability for developing post-traumatic stress symptoms after viewing disaster-related media coverage.
Scientists are increasingly interested in understanding what exposure to traumatic news coverage is doing to younger viewers who are still developing a sense of security. To manage this, parents and caregivers should actively monitor and limit access to some Internet content for young viewers.
Furthermore, parents and caregivers should limit their own consumption of disaster-related news in front of their children. While it is important for parents to get periodic updates about impending storms or fires, non-stop exposure to such content rarely provides additional actionable information. Intermittent check-ins of breaking news may be appropriate, but the TV and social media do not have to be on constantly.