POST-DISASTER TRAUMASDisaster News on TV and Social Media Can Trigger Post-Traumatic Stress in Kids Thousands of Miles Away – Here’s Why Some Are More Vulnerable

By Jonathan S. Comer and Anthony Steven Dick

Published 8 February 2022

Natural disasters are typically accompanied by a flood of gruesome images on TV and social media. These images can have a powerful psychological impact on children – whether those children are physically in the line of danger or watching from thousands of miles away.

When disasters strike, the flood of images on TV and social media can have a powerful psychological impact on children – whether those children are physically in the line of danger or watching from thousands of miles away.

Our latest research uses brain scans to show how simply watching news coverage of disasters can raise children’s anxiety and trigger responses in their brains that put them at risk of post-traumatic stress symptoms. It also explores why some children are more vulnerable to those effects than others.

This risk is important for parents and media to understand. In just the past few months, news coverage has been saturated with images of wildfires burning through neighborhoods in Colorado, tornado damage across the Midwest, a school shooting in Michigan and news of rising illnesses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

With climate change, researchers estimate that today’s children will face three times as many climate-related disasters as their grandparents. And the pervasiveness of social media and 24-hour news make exposure to images of disasters more likely.

As a neuroscientist and a psychologist who study youth anxiety and the adolescent brain, we have been exploring ways to identify children who are most at risk.

Harm to Some Kids’ Mental Health, but Not All
The Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health in 2021 as mental health professionals saw rising rates of mental health problems in youth.

Exposure to disasters in particular can trigger post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as loss of sleep, intrusive thoughts about the experience, memory impairments or severe emotional distress. But while around 10% of people who are directly exposed to traumatic events develop symptoms that are severe enough to meet diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a majority do not.

Understanding which factors help determine whether disaster exposure will lead to serious mental health problems may help identify children at greatest risk for PTSD, facilitate early intervention and help develop targeted mental health outreach in the aftermath of disasters.

This also applies to children exposed to disasters and other traumatic events through media.

once-dominant theory of disaster mental health, sometimes called the “bull’s-eye model,” proposed 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. But more and more studies are finding that the negative mental health effects of disasters extend far beyond the immediate disaster area.